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Hundreds of political prisoners freed, including famous comedian

Comedian, actor and political prisoner Zarganar was released from Myitkyina prison on 12 October 2011
Comedian, actor and political prisoner Zarganar was released from Myitkyina prison on 12 October 2011

Soe Zeya Tun / REUTERS

The Burmese government has freed hundreds of prisoners, including the famous comedian Zarganar, and announced that it would free 6,000 more, report Mizzima News, the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International (WiPC), Index on Censorship (Index), ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Zarganar (which means Tweezers), aka Maung Thura, was serving a 35-year prison sentence for criticising the government's slow response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Despite the celebratory air, however, Zarganar says he is concerned for the 14 political prisoners who unjustly remain in Myitkyina prison. Speaking to the BBC, Zarganar described his release as conditional, saying, "If I do something wrong they will send me back. I'm not happy today because there are so many of my friends still in prison."

It is still unclear how many political prisoners are included in the amnesty, though estimates say the number could be as many as 300, according to Mizzima News. The news organisation reports that among the newly freed political prisoners are nine Buddhist monks and 13 prisoners convicted of religious riots.

ARTICLE 19 laments, however, that 2,000 political prisoners are still languishing in Burma's prisons. Human Rights Watch adds that most of these prisoners were arrested following peaceful protests in 2007, when security forces jailed unlikely "criminals", including nuns, monks and activists.

Those still jailed include Min Ko Naing, leader of the pro-democracy group 88 Generation Students, and his 35 colleagues. Each were given 65-year sentences for protesting against rising commodity prices in 2007, says Human Rights Watch says. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that independent journalists are not on the list, including 17 Democratic Voice of Burma video journalists, some jailed for 10 years, others up to 27 years.

The Burmese government's motivation for the amnesty is to encourage the international community to lift economic sanctions, Mizzima News says.

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