YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar announced Friday that it was releasing almost 25,000 prisoners under a presidential amnesty marking this week’s traditional New Year celebration.
The release for the Thingyan holiday was announced in a statement from President Win Myint’s office. Mass amnesties on the holiday are not unusual, though the number this year was the highest in recent memory.
Friends and family of inmates quickly gathered outside prisons to await the releases.
The president’s statement did not say if the release was related to calls to free them because of the hazard of contracting COVID-19 in the close quarters of prison. Myanmar has reported 85 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, including four deaths, but health experts believe the actual totals are higher.
Human rights groups estimate Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons hold 92,000 people, including those awaiting trial.
It wasn’t clear if any political prisoners were among those being released. According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are 92 political prisoners serving prison terms, and other 124 in detention awaiting trial. The government has said it considers them to simply be lawbreakers rather than political prisoners.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch earlier this month said Myanmar should reduce its prison population immediately to curb the spread of COVID-19. London-based Amnesty International last week called on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, whom it charges are victims of injustice.
Outside Yangon’s Insein Prison authorities handed out face masks to the waiting crowds as buses full of those to be released passed through the gates. Most of those waiting had no idea if their relatives had been included in the amnesty.
“I’m waiting for him. I hope he’s on the list,” said 38-year-old Ei Ei Nwe, waiting in the heat for her son.
Prisoner releases are normally staggered over a period of days. Some 87 foreigners were among those set for release, though their details were not announced.
Riots broke out at several prisons in the wake of last year’s holiday amnesty. Force was used against convicts protesting that pardons were granted unfairly, favoring prominent people over ordinary prisoners convicted of the same crimes.