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Burma: the junta releases nearly 6,000 prisoners, including several foreigners

Burma’s ruling junta on Thursday announced the release of nearly 6,000 prisoners, including a former British ambassador, a Japanese journalist and an Australian adviser to the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi. These three foreign nationals “are pardoned and expelled,” the junta said in a statement, without specifying when this expulsion would take place.

The move is a rare sign of openness by the military since they came to power in a February 1, 2021 coup. Thousands of people have been imprisoned in the bloody crackdown on dissent that followed. Ex-diplomat Vicky Bowman, Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell and Japanese journalist Toru Kubota “will be released to mark the national holiday” (Thursday), a senior officer told AFP. “A total of 5,774 prisoners, including some 600 women, will be released,” they said, revising upwards the earlier figure of around 700. They did not say how many of those pardoned had been arrested during military repression against dissent.

Political condemnations

This decision had been demanded for many months by human rights organizations, which pointed to political condemnations by a junta accused of having plunged the country into a bloody conflict since the military coup of February 2021. Vicky Bowman, in office between 2002 and 2006, and her husband, Burmese artist Htein Lin, a former political prisoner, both arrested in August for violating immigration laws, had been sentenced to one year in prison. Like his wife, Htein Lin was released, AFP learned. Sean Turnell, an Australian economics professor, was working as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested days after the coup in February 2021. He was sentenced in September to three years in prison for violation of the Official Secrets Act.

Toru Kubota, 26, arrested in July on the sidelines of an anti-junta demonstration in Rangoon, was sentenced to ten years in prison. A Japanese diplomatic source confirmed to AFP that he “would be released today” on Thursday and would leave Burma for Japan on the same day. He was the fifth foreign journalist since the coup to be arrested by the junta, after Americans Danny Fenster and Nathan Maung, Pole Robert Bociaga and Japanese Yuki Kitazumi, all of whom were eventually released and expelled.

According to Unesco, at least 170 journalists have been arrested since the coup, and nearly 70 of them are still in prison. The fourth foreigner freed, Kyaw Htay Oo, is a Burmese holding a US passport, according to an official source.

The junta “shows no sign of reform”

As soon as the junta was announced, families gathered outside Insein prison in Yangon, according to an AFP journalist on the spot. San San Aye said he was waiting for his siblings to be released. “Three of them were sentenced to three years each eight months ago,” she told AFP. “Their children are waiting at home. We will be more than happy if they are freed”.

For his part, Kyaw Htay, whose son was sentenced to three years in prison for sharing anti-coup messages on social networks, said he hoped that he “will be released today”. As for Professor Turnell, his release “is very good news after he was taken hostage by the regime, his family and friends will rejoice,” independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP. But the junta “shows no sign of reform and a mass amnesty does not absolve it of the atrocities committed since the coup”, he recalled.

“Thousands of people imprisoned since the coup (…) have done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said the spokesperson for Amnesty’s regional office. Three former ministers of the deposed government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains imprisoned while her river trial is underway, have also been released, said a senior junta officer. Since the coup, more than 2,300 civilians have been killed by security forces, according to a count by a local NGO. The junta, for its part, accuses the armed opposition of the death of more than 3,900 civilians.

letelegramme Fr Trans

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