Myanmar’s president on Tuesday announced pardons for more than 8,500 prisoners, including three dozen jailed in political cases, as part of an annual amnesty marking the country’s traditional new year.
President Win Myint, who took office last month after his predecessor suddenly resigned, said the pardons were granted on humanitarian grounds during the Buddhist new year festival known as Thingyan.
The amnesty was extended mostly to drug offenders, as well as more than 50 foreigners and 36 political prisoners, according to a breakdown posted on Facebook by government spokesman Zaw Htay.
Among those released were two Baptist church leaders jailed last year on charges of supporting ethnic minority rebels in the war-torn northeast in a case criticised by rights groups.
The ethnic Kachin men were detained by soldiers in December 2016 after giving journalists information about a church allegedly hit by military airstrikes in Shan state.
“Now we are free and we feel happy… I hope our land will be peaceful in the future so this kind of thing would not happen again,” Langjaw Gam Seng, the church youth leader who was sentenced to two years and three months, told AFP after his release from prison in the town of Lashio in the state.
An NGO that helps political prisoners welcomed the overall amnesty but called for the release of at least eight more prisoners of conscience who remain in jail.
Around 200 others in Myanmar are also facing trials linked to political activities, said spokesman Aung Myo Kyaw from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
“The government can help them by cancelling the cases from the courts,” he told AFP.
Myanmar has freed thousands from its jails since a military junta ceded power in 2011 after five decades of brutal repression.
Hundreds of political prisoners were released shortly after the civilian government of former democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi took office in 2016 following a sweeping election victory.
But hopes of a new era of free expression have been dampened by a surge in prosecutions under a online defamation law in recent years.
The arrest of two Myanmar journalists working for Reuters has raised global alarm over worsening media freedoms in the fledgling democracy.
The reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, face up to 14 years in prison under the Official Secrets Act, which bars the possession of classified documents.
They were arrested in December while reporting on Myanmar security officers’ role in the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine state, where troops are accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority.