Myanmar commutes death sentences, jail terms

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s president on Thursday commuted the death sentences of some convicts and slashed the jail terms of others, but it was unclear whether any political prisoners would be freed through his order.

President Thein Sein had granted pardons Monday to those convicted of or charged with a variety of political offenses. The amnesty followed a promise by Thein Sein in July that all political prisoners would be freed by the end of the year.

State television and radio said Thursday’s order commuted death sentences to life imprisonment, reduced jail sentences of more than 40 years to 40 years, and cut sentences of 40 years or less by one-fourth. It said the order was made on humanitarian grounds and to mark the 66th anniversary of the country’s independence this Saturday.

It was not immediately clear how many prisoners would benefit from the order or whether any political prisoners would be freed.

“Many prisoners from various prisons, including criminals, will be freed under this order,” said Bo Kyi of Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and a member of the Political Prisoner Scrutinizing Body formed by the government. “I want to wait until tomorrow to see if the political prisoners that we have requested to be freed are among those released.”

Bo Kyi said the names of 46 political prisoners deserving freedom had been submitted to the president.

While concerns focus on prisoners who belonged to the country’s pro-democracy, anti-military movements as well as several ethnic minorities, there are others who fall into the category of political prisoners, including former military officers who ended up on the losing sides in factional battles.

Bo Kyi said many of the top former military intelligence officers who are serving lengthy jail terms will have their sentences reduced but will remain in prison.

It is also expected that a Foreign Ministry official and a retired army major will have their death sentences commuted to life.

The ministry official and the former major were sentenced in 2010 for allegedly leaking official information about a secret 2008 trip to North Korea by the third-ranking member of what was then Myanmar’s ruling junta, Shwe Mann, who now is chairman of the country’s elected Parliament. The leaked details of the link between the two rogue nations prompted the United States to express concern and call on Myanmar to sever military ties with North Korea.

Thein Sein on Monday granted pardons to those convicted of or charged with a variety of political offenses, such as unlawful association, high treason, contempt of government, security laws and violations of the peaceful assembly law.

Since Thein Sein became president in 2011, he has freed about 1,300 political prisoners, according to former detainees.

Thein Sein, a former general who became an elected president after five decades of repressive military rule, has instituted political and financial reforms to lift Myanmar’s sagging economy. The country had faced sanctions from Western nations because of its poor human rights record and undemocratic rule, but most of them have been lifted.

The release of political detainees is a benchmark used by Western nations to judge Thein Sein’s administration, and previous releases have been a major factor in decisions by those nations to ease sanctions.