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Myanmar says 'no more political prisoners' by year's end

Myanmar has said all its political prisoners will be free by the end of 2013 after granting further amnesties. Rights groups question whether every such prisoner was freed in time for the government's stated target.

Myanmar on Tuesday freed several prisoners as part of a pledge by the country's president to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013. More are expected to be released next week after President Thein Sein announced a sweeping pardon on Monday for people convicted for a variety of political offenses.

Peace activists Yan Naing Tun and Aung Min Naing (pictured above center and back left) were among inmates freed from Yangon's notorious Insein prison on Tuesday.

The country has held a series of high-profile amnesties since the end of outright military rule nearly three years ago.

It remains unclear whether Monday's move will affect all the 40 political prisoners listed by campaigners, or the further 200 people still awaiting trial on politically related charges, such as protesting without permission.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the president's pledge would be fulfilled.

"I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the peopple, because there will be be no political prisoners at all at the end of 2013," he said in a post on his Facebook page.

Cautious optimism

However, activists have been more cautious in welcoming the announcement.

"We cannot say at this moment whether there are no more political prisoners," Thet Oo, a spokesman for a group representing former political prisoners in Yangon said.

"We are waiting and watching," he added.

Bo Kyi, a member of the Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee, was also careful in his assessment.

"We welcome the presidential pardon order. However, several steps need to be taken to maintain a level of zero political prisoners. There must be rule of law and more political freedom to maintain that level," he said.

Political arrests

Before Myanamar, formerly known as Burma, introduced its reforms, rights groups accused the country of wrongfully imprisoning about 2,000 people on politically related charges.

Best known among these was Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who chairs the opposition National League for Democracy Party. She spent almost 15 years in all - over a 21-year period from 1989 - under house arrest in Myanmar before being finally released in November 2010.

Most of the prisoners have since been freed under previous amnesties, but many former political prisoners have suffered repeated arrests for continuing their activities.

tj/msh (AFP, AP)

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