Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners: officials

YANGON, Myanmar (UPDATED) - Myanmar on Friday said it had released dozens of jailed dissidents, as the fast-changing former pariah state hosts top-level international visitors, including from the European Union.

The country pardoned 69 inmates, the latest in a series of releases that have been seen internationally as a key marker of its emergence from military rule.

A statement from the president's office said the release was to "respect humanitarian grounds and allow (those freed) to be able to assist in national building by understanding the benevolence and loving kindness of the state".

It reiterated a pledge that Myanmar would free all remaining detained dissidents by the end of the year.

The announcement, which said the releases began Friday, comes as Myanmar hosts a slew of international delegations.

Reformist President Thein Sein met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday as part of a wide-ranging European mission to the country.

He also met former US president Bill Clinton, who is in Myanmar on behalf of his foundation, while former British prime minister Tony Blair is also in the country.

Thein Sein has won international praise and the removal of most Western sanctions for reforms since he took power in 2011.

He announced during his first visit to London in July there would be "no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar" by the end of the year.

But the Myanmar leader has been criticised by activists who accuse authorities of continuing to prosecute dissidents, particularly for protesting without permission. Scores remain behind bars, but the precise number of inmates is unclear.

The government also faces claims that those critics who remain behind bars are being used for political capital with the international community and during ethnic minority peace negotiations.

Ye Aung, a representative of former political prisoners on the committee in charge of reviewing the status of detained dissidents, said some of those freed had been convicted under the new quasi-civilian government.

At least one released inmate was jailed over demonstrations against a Chinese-backed copper mine in central Myanmar, he told AFP.

"We are trying not to have political prisoners in the future. If they arrest and sentence activists because of protests, there will be political prisoners again," Ye Aung said.

Arbitrary imprisonment was a hallmark of the previous junta, which denied the existence of political prisoners even as it meted out harsh punishments to rights activists, journalists, lawyers and performers.

But the nation has since undergone dramatic change, including the release of opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi from long years of house arrest and her election to parliament.

Myanmar freed 56 political prisoners in October – many linked to armed ethnic minority groups in the northern state of Kachin and the eastern state of Shan – as the government strives to reach an elusive nationwide peace deal with rebels.

Some 70 were freed in July, many of whom were also from Kachin groups.

As part of the reforms Thein Sein's government has reached tentative peace deals with major armed ethnic minority rebel groups in the country, which has been racked by civil wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

But fighting in Kachin near the northern border with China has continued since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June last year, leaving tens of thousands displaced.

A government official, who asked not to be named, told the Agence France-Presse that identifying political prisoners had become complicated by the inclusion of those involved in the country's armed conflicts.

"There have been some cases of people convicted as arms dealers or bombers who have been recognized as political prisoners," he said. -