Myanmar prisoner clemency slammed as 'pathetic'

By the Associated Press | May 16, 2011 | 11:58 PM EDT

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's long-expected clemency program for prisoners was slammed as a "pathetic response" to foreign calls to set more than 2,000 political detainees free.

State media reported Monday that President Thein Sein signed a "general amnesty" order on humanitarian grounds commuting death sentences to life imprisonment and cutting one year from convicts' prison terms.

The announcement did not say how many prisoners are covered by the order, and it wasn't known when it would take effect.

It was unlikely to benefit political prisoners because most are serving long prison sentences, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political group.

"I think this amnesty order is not intended for the political prisoners," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the amnesty appears to be "conditions based."

"We reiterate our call that all political prisoners be released immediately," he told a news conference in Washington.

New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying, "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," the rights group said Tuesday.

The Myanmar government generally grants amnesties to mark important national days. The last in 2009 freed 7,114 prisoners. Most recipients are petty criminals, but previous mass releases have usually included a handful of political detainees.

An amnesty had been expected when the country held its first elections in 20 years in November, when parliament convened in January, and then when the nominally civilian government was sworn in at the end of March.

Myanmar has more than 60,000 prisoners in 42 prisons and 109 labor camps. They include more than 2,000 political detainees, according to the U.N. and human rights groups.

Long-term detainees include prominent student activists such as Min Ko Naing who are serving 65-year prison sentences and politicians from ethnic minority parties such as Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo who have sentences of more than 80 years.

The government denies holding any political prisoners, saying all inmates have been found guilty of criminal offenses.

Myanmar has been under the sway of the army since 1962, and critics say the transition to civilian rule is a charade that perpetuates military rule.