Myanmar began releasing as many as 15,000 prisoners Tuesday as part of an amnesty program after a visit from a special envoy from the UN secretary-general, but rights groups claim the government has not gone far enough. On Monday, President Thein Sein issued an order [UPI report] commuting death sentences to life sentences and commuting prison sentences by one year. The UN secretary-general's envoy to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar [official profile], visited the country from May 11-13 and called on the government to release all of its political prisoners. But few of the prisoners being released by the government are political prisoners. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, criticized the response [press release]:
The government's gesture will be welcomed by a great many prisoners in Burma, but for the 2,100 political prisoners unjustly serving sentences of up to 65 years, the one-year reduction is a sick joke. This is a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners.HRW is also calling on Myanmar to eliminate the death penalty entirely. The government maintains its position that it is not detaining any political prisoners [AP report].
In March, Myanmar underwent a transfer of power [BBC report] from a military regime to a civil system after holding its first elections in 20 years. However, critics argue that the new regime is merely a sham since it is made up of military generals and with the military party winning 80 percent of the vote. Last December, a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) [official website] expert Tomas Ojea Quintana [official profile; JURIST news archive], a UN Special Rapporteur, urged Myanmar's military government [JURIST report] to release 2,202 political prisoners. Quintana called for the release of the "prisoners of conscience," many of whom, he says, suffer from health problems as a result of the harsh detention conditions. Quintana claims the release is necessary to promote democracy. Last November, Myanmar's government released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi [BBC profile; JURIST news archive], ending her almost eight years under house arrest. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [official website] hailed her release and encouraged the country to release all political prisoners [press release]. Suu Kyi's release came days after the Myanmar Supreme Court rejected an appeal [JURIST report] challenging the conditions of her house arrest.