Myanmar says hundreds of political prisoners free
Myanmar has released more than 300 people deemed by the opposition to be political prisoners, a minister said Saturday, after the West hailed the move as a substantial sign of reform.
Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko insisted however that none of them had been jailed for political reasons, saying: "We didn't take action against anyone because of politics or beliefs."
The amnesty was hailed on Friday by Western powers, which have long demanded the release of political detainees before they will consider lifting sanctions, and the United States now says it wants to restore top-level diplomatic ties.
About 650 inmates were freed in total in the amnesty, including leading pro-democracy dissidents who were at the forefront of a failed 1988 uprising in which thousands died, and participants in 2007's "Saffron Revolution" protests.
Ko Ko told reporters that 302 of those released were on a list of political prisoners compiled by a political group inside Myanmar, thought to be the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
He said another 128 remained on the list who could not be released for security reasons as they had committed serious crimes.
"This release was not according to the demand of any person or any organization. We released them according to the true benevolence of the government," Ko Ko said.
About 200 political detainees were freed in October, and estimates of the number left in prison after that amnesty ranged from 500 to more than 1,500.
About another 100 of those released in Friday's amnesty were former members of the intelligence service, Ko Ko said.
Among them was Khin Nyunt, a former prime minister and intelligence chief who was ousted in 2004 in a power struggle and placed under house arrest.
US President Barack Obama said the amnesty was a "substantial step" towards democracy in a country ruled for decades by the military, while the NLD, headed by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, hailed it as a "positive sign".
The nominally civilian government that came to power last year in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has surprised even sceptics with a series of reformist moves.
It froze work on an unpopular dam supported by powerful neighbour China last year, and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic Karen group involved in one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts.
The country recently announced plans to hold by-elections on April 1 and Suu Kyi -- released from years of house arrest in November 2010 -- plans to stand for a seat in parliament in a constituency near the main city Yangon.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner said earlier this week that her country was "on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy".
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