Burma's prisoner release plan a "sick joke"


A Burmese worker walks past a water fountain in Naypyidaw on Jan. 30, 2011 as the country's capital prepares for the opening of the national parliament.


Soe Than Win

Burma began releasing thousands of prisoners today — you'd think it would be good news.

And it is, for the 14,600 mostly common criminals that President Thein Sein took pity upon, according to the Jakarta Post 

Thein Sein granted clemency to 348 death-row prisoners, lifting the death penalty and commuting their terms to life in prison. He reduced other prisoners' sentences by one year, according to media reports.

Prisoners with less than a year to go in their sentences presumably will be released, according to Human Rights Watch.

But this mass prisoner release pertains to almost none of the political prisoners held under vague laws for double-digit jail terms.

Human Rights Watch said it was a "pathetic response" to international calls for widespread amnesty.

"The government's gesture will be welcomed by a great many prisoners in Burma, but for the 2,100 political prisoners unjustly serving sentences of up to 65 years, the one-year reduction is a sick joke," said Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director.

The global human rights watchdog said the move was a "slap in the face" for senior U.N. envoy Vijay Nambiar, who just last week visited Burma and said recent signals from the new government were "very encouraging."

The Burmese government generally grants amnesties to mark important national days, and previous mass releases have included a handful of political detainees.

Burma is thought to have more than 60,000 prisoners in 42 prisons and 109 labor camps.