Burma: Prisoners' amnesty criticised as gesture to improve image

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The Independent Online

Burma's new government began freeing about 14,000 prisoners and commuting thousands more sentences yesterday in an amnesty critics dismissed as a token gesture aimed at improving its international image.

Activists said the vast majority of those released from prisons across the country were common criminals and few were political prisoners, who number at least 2,200, according to rights groups.

The large number of political detentions has been central to the imposition of economic sanctions on Burma's rulers since a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988.

The amnesty was announced by President Thein Sein and came just days after United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar visited Burma and urged the release of all political prisoners.

According to the presidential decree, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Burma's prison department said 14,000 prisoners would be freed yesterday. About 2,000 were released from Yangon's notorious Insein Prison, but activists said only two political detainees were among them.

The US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the failure to release political detainees showed Burma's new government had no intention to reform.

"Thein Sein's government has shown its true colours," it said in a statement. "This can hardly be considered progress."