Burma frees 450 prisoners

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The Independent Online

Just days before the arrival of US President Barack Obama, the authorities in Burma were yesterday giving buildings the usual new coat of paint, and granting amnesty to around 450 prisoners. But according to campaigners, none of those set free were dissidents.

The Burmese authorities have routinely offered clemency to prisoners, partly as a way to sway public opinion. But campaigners say most of those set free are usually common criminals. The exception to that was a series of releases earlier this year when hundreds of former activists and other dissidents were allowed to go home.

"We haven't heard of any political prisoners being released. This is a shame," U Naing Naing, of the Central Social Assistance Committee, which helps families of political prisoners, told the Associated Press.

The announcement about the releases in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper came ahead of the visit on Monday by Mr Obama, who will become the first sitting American president to visit Burma.

Earlier this year, when the West was preparing to suspend a series of sanctions, both the US and UK said the release of political prisoners would be a required part of the deal. While the nominally-civilian administration of President Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners, including most of the high profile names, as many as 330 remain behind bars.

"The government of Burma has said they are committed to releasing all political prisoners. So why haven't they?" said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.