(Reuters) - Myanmar will free almost 25,000 prisoners in an amnesty to mark the traditional New Year, the president's office said on Friday, its largest mass pardon in recent years.
President Win Myint said 24,896 people jailed across the country, including 87 foreigners, would be freed unconditionally “to bring delights to the citizens of Myanmar and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns”.
The president gave no details of the crimes the prisoners were convicted of.
Zaw Zaw, a spokesman for the prisons department, told Reuters by telephone the large number being released was not linked to concern about the coronavirus,
Myanmar has reported 85 cases and four deaths from the coronavirus, which emerged in neighbouring China late last year and has spread around the world.
Crowds gathered outside Insein prison in the commercial capital of Yangon on Friday hoping to greet family members, despite a ban on gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus.
Last year, about 23,000 people were freed over several days in the annual amnesty, according to state media. More than 8,000 were released the previous year.
It was not immediately clear whether the release would include anyone convicted in connection with acts of dissent against the government.
The prison department says there are no political prisoners in Myanmar but rights groups say dozens of people are in prison because of their political activity.
Asked if any such prisoners were among those being released, Zaw Zaw said the prison department did not put "labels" on freed prisoners. An official at Insein prison said he did not know if any activists or dissidents were being freed.
When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2016, after more than half a century of military rule, one of her first acts was to release hundreds of political prisoners.
"The government doesn't actually acknowledge political prisoners but we were asked for some lists and we gave a list of over 70," said Aung Myo Kyaw of the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
"We still don't know if any of them are released,” he said.
More than 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019, according to human rights nonprofit group Athan.
Those behind bars include members of a satirical poetry troupe and students imprisoned last month for protesting against a government-imposed internet shutdown.
While the military retains extensive powers, activists say the civilian government has failed to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap repressive laws stifling dissent, tightening restrictions on civil society.
The AAPP says there are more than 92,000 people in Myanmar's over-stretched prison system, with some jails operating at double or triple capacity. So the number being released would represent more than a quarter of the prison population.
The government has not released information recently about the prison population.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)