YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar began releasing 17,000 prisoners on Tuesday, an official said, under a clemency programme that sparked outrage from critics as it leaves more than 2,000 political detainees languishing in jail.
Among those set to be released were some of the intelligence personnel purged after the ousting of former premier and army intelligence chief Khin Nyunt in a power struggle in 2004, the official told AFP.
But the vast majority were expected to be common criminals, despite repeated calls on the regime to free the huge numbers of political prisoners often held under vague laws for double-digit jail terms.
Myanmar's President Thein Sein, in a message read on state television on Monday, said that the government was reducing all inmates' sentences by one year and commuting the death penalty to life imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the announcement a "sick joke" given the numbers of political prisoners in the country, while the United States urged the regime to go much further as it renewed economic sanctions against Myanmar.
Amnesty International echoed calls for a comprehensive release of "prisoners of conscience", with the group's Myanmar researcher Benjamin Zawacki describing the latest move as "astonishingly insufficient".
The US and democracy activists have long called for a broader amnesty in Myanmar, where the military handed over power to a nominally civilian government led by a retired general after an election last year.
While it was unclear how many political prisoners had less than one year to serve and so would be released, the numbers were expected to be extremely small.
"This is a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
The group said the government's decision was a "slap in the face" for senior UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, who just last week visited Myanmar and said recent signals from the new government were "very encouraging".
But Nambiar said it was important to watch whether there was real progress in areas such as human rights, notably on the release of political prisoners.
A senior envoy from the United States, Joseph Y Yun, is expected to visit the country on Wednesday, which may partly explain the timing of Thein Sein's announcement.
Yangon's notorious Insein jail was releasing 2,600 people, the official said, and on Tuesday orderly lines of prisoners could be seen emerging from its gates, clutching bags of their possessions, to be reunited with their families.
Detainees, including a number of women with children in their arms, were photographed by AFP listening to a briefing inside the jail before they were permitted to walk free.
"Altogether about 17,000 prisoners from the prisons around the country will be released. Jailed former intelligence personnel will be among those released," the official told AFP, declining to be named.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in November shortly after the election, Myanmar's first in 20 years.
The West welcomed her freedom but criticised the poll as anything but free and fair, and has urged the government to do more to improve its human rights record.
In a formal notice to Congress on Monday, President Barack Obama said he was renewing sanctions that would otherwise have expired this month because Myanmar was taking actions "hostile to US interests".