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Police assist a newly released prisoner in the meeting hall of Insein Prison in Yangon October 12, 2011. Myanmar freed at least 300 political prisoners including several prominent dissidents on Wednesday, leaving as many as 2,000 behind bars, as one of the world's most reclusive states begins to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule.
Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
By Tom Miles
Wed Oct 12, 2011 3:05pm EDT
GENEVA (Reuters) - Myanmar's release of political prisoners on Wednesday is a sign of change, but the U.N. rights investigator for the isolated country wants many more freed before the end of the year.
Rights investigator Tomas Ojea Quintana said he expected Myanmar's military rulers to hold by-elections by year's end, and he would like to see the release of remaining political prisoners by then.
"It's very important that the government finish with this process of release before the elections," he told Reuters in an interview.
"I hope this takes place. I cannot anticipate, but this will be my demand to the government."
Myanmar has begun to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule by the junta, with loosening of some media controls and more political dialogue with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 15-year house arrest ended only last year.
Asked if the government had one eye on the Arab Spring, which has toppled long-term rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Ojea Quintana said officials in Myanmar had told him they did not want to release political prisoners because they were worried about public demonstrations.
"What I said in that respect was: you have an example of an important politician who was released, Aung San Suu Kyi, and you have an example of how she's reacting to this process and how she's traveling round the country without compromising stability around the country, so I said you've got an example there and you should proceed with the release."
Wednesday's release of at least 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents, was welcomed as a positive sign by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, although it disappointed campaigners from Amnesty International who had hoped for many more to be freed.
Ojea Quintana, an Argentine lawyer who serves as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said some of the most important dissidents had not been released and more than 1,000 prisoners of conscience remained behind bars.
"What I have seen in my last mission in August is that there are real opportunities for change and there are new institutions being built," he said, adding that he will submit his report to the U.N. General Assembly next Wednesday.
"My expectation is that on the 19th it's going to be a pretty fruitful discussion at the United Nations and we'll have to see what will be the resolution coming out from the General Assembly then."
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Roddy)
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