THARRAWADDY,Myanmar: A Myanmar court on Friday freed dozens of jailed students, in the first wave of detainee releases after Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to make freeing activists and political prisoners a priority of her new government.
There were jubilant scenes at the sweltering central Myanmar courthouse in Tharrawaddy, as a judge told the 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.
Tearful parents gripped their children in emotional scenes before hurrying to the nearby prison to collect the detainees’ belongings.
“Our release showed that we didn’t commit any crime,” Ei Thinzar Maung, 20, told Agence France-Presse after her release.
“We suffered in prison for more than one year. We are happy but we want the new government to release all political prisoners immediately.”
Cases were cancelled against some 70 student protesters, although three remain in jail pending other charges.
A further dozen students will have to wait until their next scheduled hearing to find out whether they will be freed.
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 had on Thursday said 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.
Late Friday, she released a second statement seeking to reassure that the remaining student cases would be resolved after Myanmar’s nearly two-week New Year holiday which starts on Monday.
It added that political prisoners and jailed activists would also be freed, but that “necessary scrutinisation” would need to be completed before they could be released.
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.
Those gathered in Tharrawaddy’s dusty courtroom erupted into cheers and song after the judge delivered his statement, while dozens of police looked on.
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.
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.AFP