YANGON: Myanmar's government released a total of 102 prisoners on Friday (Jan 22), including New Zealander Philip Blackwood who was jailed late 2014 for insulting Buddhism.
The freeing of prisoners was part of President Thein Sein's ongoing amnesty since his administration took office in 2011, said Director in the President's office Zaw Htay. The move also came days before democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi is set to form a new government after an election victory in November.
This showed the president’s commitment to Myanmar’s reform process, said Mr Zaw Htay, adding that it was done in the spirit of achieving peace.
Mr Thein Sein also reduced the death sentences of 77 prisoners to life imprisonment, said Mr Zaw Htay. The president is currently attending the World Buddhist Peace Conference, which starts in Myanmar on Friday.
Prisoners sent letters to Mr Thein Sein, requesting for a reduction in their sentences, explained Mr Zaw Htay. This prompted the president to show sympathy, he added.
More than 1,200 political prisoners have been released since 2011, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). However, more than 500 prisoners still remain behind bars.
"Most of them were arrested for staging protests. As far as I know, there will be 101 political prisoners who will be released in the coming days," said Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of AAPP.
However, as prisoners are getting released, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was on Friday sentenced to six months in jail. He was charged with putting a defamatory picture of the country’s military chief on Facebook, and has been detained since October.
Gambira, the Saffron Revolution leader who led the 2007 street protests in Myanmar also remains behind bars. He was arrested earlier this week after authorities accused him of crossing the Thai border illegally.
Gambira suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is on constant medication. Foreign organisations such as Amnesty International have called for his immediate release.
Mr Bo Kyi told Channel NewsAsia that the AAPP intends to send a letter to the president requesting for a release on compassionate grounds, hoping Gambira will be able to get immediate medical attention.
Gambira’s illness stemmed from his four-year imprisonment for leading the 2007 Saffron Revolution. He was allegedly beaten and tortured while in jail before his release in 2012.