Burma begins releasing prisoners under new amnesty

Prisoners walk out Burma's Insein prison after they were released under a government amnesty
Image caption About 15,000 prisoners were being released from jail on Tuesday, officials said

Burma has begun freeing thousands of prisoners and reducing sentences under an amnesty dismissed by critics as a gesture to improving its image abroad.

Human rights activists said few of the country's 2,200 political prisoners were among those being released.

The New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, dismissed the amnesty as "pathetic".

It said the one-year reduction in sentences for political prisoners serving 65 years was "a sick joke".

Burmese state media reported on Monday that President Thein Sein had signed a "general amnesty" on humanitarian grounds.

Under the amnesty, death sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment and a year would be cut off other prison terms.

About 15,000 prisoners are being freed from jails around the country, prison department chief Zaw Win was cited by the Associated Press as saying.

The BBC Burmese service said it is thought that there are only about 30 political prisoners among them.

Sanctions renewed

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group described the amnesty as a "pathetic response" to international demands for the freedom of all political prisoners.

Given that some political prisoners have been given terms of 65 years in jail, a one-year reduction, even if applied to them, was a "sick joke", HRW said.

Burma's last general amnesty, in 2009, saw the release of 7,114 prisoners, most of them petty criminals.

Alongside its political prisoners, Burma has more than 60,000 prisoners in 42 prisons and 109 labour camps.

Meanwhile, the United States has renewed its sanctions against economic ties with the military-backed Burmese government.

US President Barack Obama said in a statement to Congress that sanctions were required because of Burma's "large-scale repression of the democratic opposition".

Efforts to engage the Burmese military over the past two years, and the holding of elections last November, have not convinced the Obama administration that any real change is under way.

"We reiterate our call that all political prisoners be released immediately," US state department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Last month, the European Union relaxed some sanctions against members of Burma's government.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) welcomed the elections and suggested that sanctions should be dropped in order to help Burma progress.

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