Myanmar frees student activists after Suu Kyi pledge

Myanmar frees student activists after Suu Kyi pledge

Newly-released political student protester and family members cry after being reunited in Tharrawaddy town, Bago region in Myanmar on Friday (AFP photo)
Newly-released political student protester and family members cry after being reunited in Tharrawaddy town, Bago region in Myanmar on Friday (AFP photo)

THARRAWADD, MYANMAR - A Myanmar court on Friday freed dozens of jailed students, in the first wave of detainee releases after Aung San Suu Kyi pledged that the release of activists and political prisoners would be the first priority of her new government.

There were jubilant scenes at the sweltering central Myanmar courthouse in Tharrawaddy, as a judge told young activists they could go home more than a year after they were arrested over an education protest that was violently crushed by police in March 2015.

"You 69 are all freed now (from this case) without charge," said township judge Chit Myat, though at least three activists in the group will remain in prison because they face hearings in other courts.

Myanmar has scores of political prisoners languishing in its jails and hundreds of detained activists awaiting trial, despite reforms in recent years as the military loosened its grip on power following half a century of repressive rule.

Suu Kyi said Thursday she would prioritise releasing activists -- an issue laden with significance for herself and scores of MPs in her party once jailed for democracy activism during the junta era.

The statement was not followed by an official amnesty notice from President Htin Kyaw, but families nevertheless crowded at prison gates around the country since early morning hoping to reunite with their loved ones.

Those gathered in Tharrawaddy's dusty courtroom erupted into cheers and song after the judge delivered his statement, while dozens of police looked on.

Tearful parents gripped their children in emotional scenes before hurrying to the nearby prison to collect the detainees' belongings.

Some students stopped at a cemetery to pay their respects to the graves of other activists who died in the country's decades-long democracy struggle.

"Our release showed that we didn't commit any crime. We suffered in prison for more than one year. We are happy but we want the new government to release all political prisoners immediately," Ei Thinzar Maung, 20, told AFP after her release.

Court officials said they began preparing to release the students shortly after Suu Kyi's statement, which said her government would try to free detainees still on trial by asking the state prosecutor to drop the charges.

No other political prisoners were confirmed as released on Friday, though scores of other detainees were freed from prisons around the country because their sentences were due to end during the upcoming Buddhist new year holiday.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the students' release, but urged Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party to amend the laws used to imprison peaceful protesters.

"They have to release political prisoners but they also have to do away with these rights-abusing laws. The NLD has an absolute majority in both houses of the national assembly. They can do this," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.

The routine jailing of dissidents was one of the former junta's most egregious acts, sparking international outcry and support for Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

Suu Kyi herself spent about 15 years under house arrest and more than 100 current National League for Democracy lawmakers served time in the country's notorious prisons.

The quasi-civilian government that replaced the junta in 2011 freed hundreds of political detainees, but it also oversaw the detention of scores more, particularly those involved in land and education protests.

Prior to Friday there were about 121 political prisoners held in Myanmar's jails and a further 414 awaiting trial, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The majority were arrested before last November's landmark elections, which Suu Kyi's NLD won in a landslide.

Suu Kyi made the prisoner release announcement in her broadly defined new position of state counsellor, which she was given despite vehement opposition from the still-powerful military whose charter bars her from the presidency.

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