Myanmar’s leader has set up a committee to review political prisoner cases “to grant them liberty”, state media said Thursday, in a rare direct acknowledgement of dissidents in the nation’s jails.
The regime, which long denied their existence, has freed hundreds of political detainees since President Thein Sein took power in March 2011, and announced a review of all “politically concerned” cases in November last year.
The latest statement referred specifically to “political prisoners” and pledged to define who is a “prisoner of conscience” among those jailed - many for several years or more - and work towards their release.
The committee members are yet to be picked, but will be made up of government representatives as well as civil society groups and other political party members, the statement in the English-language New Light of Myanmar said.
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the issue of prisoner releases was key towards achieving “national reconciliation”.
But first, “it is important to decide who will be designated as political prisoners”, he said.
The government pledged the case review last year, and promised to allow the Red Cross to resume its prison visits, in a bid to burnish its reform credentials ahead of a landmark visit by US President Barack Obama.
In response to the country’s political reforms, the West has begun rolling back sanctions and foreign firms are lining up to invest in the country.
Rights groups have accused Myanmar of wrongfully imprisoning some 2,000 political opponents, dissidents and journalists during decades of authoritarian junta rule.
Estimates of the number of political detainees still locked up vary but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based campaign group, put the figure at 222 in a list posted on its website last month.
Kyaw Hlaing, of the group Former Political Prisoners, welcomed the government’s recognition of the jailed dissidents.
“It has been very difficult to the government to admit that there are political prisoners,” he said, adding that he hoped many of the prisoners could be released by mid-this year and putting their number at around 240.