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Myanmar frees 20 political prisoners; more urged

Associated Press Modified: July 3, 2012 at 9:45 pm •  Published: July 3, 2012

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's reformist government granted amnesties for at least 20 political prisoners, but opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for the release of all of the hundreds more still behind bars.

Zaw Thet Htwe, who monitors prisoner releases for the opposition, said more than 20 of 46 detainees granted amnesties on Tuesday by President Thein Sein were prisoners of conscience.

The office of 88 Generation Students, a group that spearheaded a failed uprising against the military in 1988, put the number slightly higher, saying 24 political prisoners were among them.

Freedom for political prisoners is a benchmark used by Western nations critical of Myanmar's former military regime to judge Thein Sein's administration. Previous releases have been a major factor in decisions by those nations to ease economic and political sanctions they placed on the previous government for its poor human rights record and undemocratic rule.

Thein Sein had served with the old regime before his pro-military party won 2010 elections. In office, he began democratic reforms and opened dialogues with ethnic insurgent groups and the pro-democracy movement. Suu Kyi agreed to have her party contest by-elections in April, and she and other colleagues now belong to a small opposition in the military-dominated legislature.

"We will call for the release of all 330 political prisoners," Suu Kyi, the country's most famous former political detainee, said at a news conference Tuesday that was her first appearance since returning from a high-profile European tour over the weekend.

Amnesty International welcomed the releases but called on the government to set other political prisoners free.

"It is shameful that the Myanmar government continues to incarcerate hundreds of its citizens just for exercising their basic rights to freedom of expression and assembly," the rights group said in a statement. "All prisoners of conscience must be released immediately. "

Human Rights Watch says that prior to the latest amnesty, at least 659 political prisoners have been released over the past year. Estimates by human rights groups of the number remaining in custody range from about 200 to about 600. Suu Kyi's party counts 330.

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