Burma has freed almost 7,000 detainees, including political prisoners and 260 foreigners, as part of a country-wide amnesty.
A total of 6,966 prisoners were pardoned, including Chinese citizens who were being held in Kachin state for illegal logging – 153 of whom received life sentences in mid-July, according to Chinese officials.
The loggers were arrested in January when more than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized during a raid as part of a crack-down on Burma’s lucrative illegal logging and timber trade, state media said at the time.
Logging is a particularly hot issue in Burma, as the border with China is a centre for the illegal trade in timber and jade which feeds Chinese demand.
Around nine former top members of the country's powerful military intelligence, many of whom were purged under the junta, were among those released, according to a senior prison official who spoke to Reuters.
A further thirteen of those set free were prisoners of conscience, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which said it was working to check prisoners’ names to check if more had been freed.
However, human rights groups have urged the government to go further, and said that 136 political prisoners were detained and another 448 were facing trial in Burma last week, according to AAPP.
The decision which comes ahead of the autumn elections was likely an attempt to ease tensions with China, its powerful neighbour, after it said it was “extremely concerned” by the sentencing of its citizens.
Having acted as a lifeline to Burma during two decades of sanctioning, China continues to be an important partner in trade, security and energy for the country.
However, relations have come under strain this year over fighting between Burma’s army and a rebel militant which has seen stray shells kill Chinese citizens in border areas.
Additional reporting by ReutersReuse content