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Myanmar frees longest-serving political prisoner

23/09/2008 - 12:40

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's longest-serving political prisoner, journalist Win Tin, was freed Tuesday after 19 years in jail and immediately vowed to continue his struggle against 46 years of unbroken military rule.

"I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he told reporters outside a friend's house in the former Burma's main city, Yangon. He was still wearing his light-blue prison clothes.

The ailing 79-year old was arrested in July 1989 and sentenced to jail for giving shelter to a girl thought to have received an illegal abortion.

While inside, he received additional punishment for agitating against the military government and distributing propaganda, bringing his total sentence to 20 years.

He was released on the same day that 9,002 prisoners were set free, but said he had complained to prison officials about being lumped in as part of a nationwide amnesty for ordinary criminals getting out on good behaviour.

In protest, he refused to pick up his personal belongings or change into civilian clothes.

"I did not accept their terms for the amnesty. I refused to be one of 9,002," he said, adding that no conditions had been attached to his release. "Far from it. They should have released me five years ago. They owe me a few years," he said.

He also played down worries about his health, cited as another reason for his release.

"I am quite OK. I am quite all right," he said.

Human rights groups had feared his health was in decline. A year ago, Win Tin himself was musing about dying behind bars.

"Will death be my release? As long as democracy and human rights are not within reach, I decline my release. I am prepared to stay," he wrote in a short poem handed to visiting United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which tracks inmates of Myanmar's gulag, said five other prisoners of conscience were also released on Tuesday.

"ELATED"

Amnesty International said it was "elated" by news of the releases, even though more than 2,100 people remain behind bars on account of their political or religious beliefs.

Win Tin was one of Myanmar's most high-profile political prisoners after opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years, and her deputy Tin Oo.

London-based Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki said the generals may have decided to release Win Tin for fear that his death in custody could have stoked unrest only a year after major anti-junta protests led by the revered Buddhist monkhood.

"Maybe they thought it was better, on balance, to have Win Tin on the outside in case he passes away rather than have him die on their watch, so to speak," Zawacki said.

Suu Kyi managed to wring small concessions out of the junta earlier this month by refusing deliveries of fresh food to the Yangon home where she has been under arrest for five years. The refusal prompted speculation she was on a hunger strike.

(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould and Valerie Lee)