Mask-clad family members stood outside the red gate of a prison in Myanmar’s northern Shan state on Friday welcoming freed prisoners. Myanmar, also known as Burma, released 24,896 inmates as part of its annual pardon for the Buddhist New Year. This year, the ongoing pandemic added new importance to the tradition.
Around the world, countries are releasing inmates to decongest their prisons, fearing the coronavirus could spread rapidly inside overcrowded holding centers. The United States is working to ensure the growing trend includes prisoners of conscience.
Myanmar President Win Myint pardoned mostly prisoners convicted of drug charges. His order freed only 20 political detainees and 87 foreigners awaiting deportation.
Human Rights Watch noted several religious and political prisoners, including prominent Rakhine state politician Aye Maung and writer Wai Hin Aung, remain incarcerated.
“It’s appalling that prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists were largely excluded,” said Clare Algar with Amnesty International. “They should not be in prison in the first place and are victims of repression, harassment, and arbitrary arrests by the Myanmar authorities, both the civilian-led government and the military.”
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners of Burma also appealed for freedom for the prisoners of conscience and hundreds of others awaiting or undergoing trials.
Overcrowding, close proximity, and the inability to maintain strict hygiene make prisons a high-risk environment for contagious diseases like COVID-19. Prisons in more than 124 countries already exceed maximum occupancy, according to Penal Reform International. With nearly 11 million people detained or incarcerated around the world, prison reform advocates urged countries to consider emergency releases of nonviolent offenders and older, at-risk individuals.
Myanmar was one of several countries in Southeast Asia speeding up prisoner releases to help blunt the effects of the coronavirus. Even before the New Year’s amnesty, Myanmar dropped charges of illegal travel against 200 Rohingya Muslims. Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Kenya, Turkey, the United States are among other nations that have either released or furloughed some inmates.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters last week that the pandemic has brought freedom to some people imprisoned for their religion. They include Ramiel Bet Tamraz, a 35-year-old Assyrian Christian who was serving a four-month sentence in Iran’s Evin Prison for his participation in house churches.
“We often work for years to get one free,” Brownback said. “And in this midst of this pandemic, we’re seeing a number get released.”
But the United States and groups like the United Nations are calling for more. Brownback said multilateral pressure from countries in the U.S.-led International Religious Freedom Alliance could help persuade some reluctant nations.
The Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps, in addition to persecuting Christians and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. In Iran, Shia Muslim hard-liners persecute Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, and Baha’i followers, while officials in Pakistan use blasphemy laws to justify arrests, imprisonment, and mob violence against religious minorities.
“We’re calling on those nations that still have prisoners of conscience to release those at this time,” Brownback said, “and furthermore, making the point that you shouldn’t want any of these prisoners of conscience to die of COVID virus in prison and have responsibility on your hands for not having done the right thing.”