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Apr 17, 7:11 AM EDT

Myanmar's president has granted amnesty to more than 8,500 prisoners, reportedly including at least three dozen political prisoners

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Myanmar President Win Myint has granted amnesty to more than 8,500 prisoners, reportedly including at least three dozen political prisoners.

The amnesty, announced Tuesday, coincided with Myanmar's traditional New Year. It was granted to 8,490 Myanmar citizens and 51 foreigners. A statement from presidential spokesman Zaw Thay said those released included the aged, people in ill health and drug offenders. None was individually named.

It also said 36 of those freed had been listed as political prisoners by the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The releases were to take place at prisons nationwide. Relatives and friends of those held waited Tuesday outside the gates at Insein Prison, in the northern outskirts of Yangon, where it was expected that more than 300 prisoners, including eight political detainees, would be released.

As they came through the gate, the released prisoners looked excited, though many were reluctant to be interviewed.

One of those freed was Saw War Lay, a member of the Karen ethnic minority who was arrested in 2006 and is serving a life sentence for his connection with the Karen National Union ethnic rebel group.

"I really would like to say many thanks to the president. And I wish he will be successful in his peace process," he said, referring to government efforts to reach an agreement with all the ethnic minorities to end decades of conflict. "But I am so sad for those prisoners who (are) still inside."

Two Christian pastors from the Kachin minority were freed from a prison in Lashio, in northern Myanmar, in a more recent and high-profile case.

Last year, Pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, was sentenced to 4 years and 3 months in prison and Baptist youth leader Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months for allegedly providing support to an ethnic armed group and defaming the military.

In the aftermath of a government offensive in northern Myanmar, they had helped journalists report on a Catholic church that was destroyed in an airstrike in November 2016. Combat in the area still continues.

"We are here with both of them and the whole Baptist community is very happy to have them back," lawyer Brang Di said by phone. "Everyone is praying for them and encouraging them."

Although called an amnesty, the action appeared to actually be a mass pardon, meaning it would cover only prisoners who had already been convicted of crimes. Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, facing a high-profile freedom of the press trial for possessing secret official documents would not be covered under the action.

One of the journalists' lawyers, Khin Maung Zaw, said his understanding was that the president was only pardoning convicted criminals.

Bo Kyi, secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said the group was waiting to confirm the releases.

"We don't know exactly if all 36 political prisoners will be released or not, and that's why the family members are waiting outside of the prison," he said.

The group, which has extensive experience in monitoring the incarceration of political prisoners, says that 54 are currently serving prison terms after being convicted, 74 are in detention awaiting trial, and another 120 are awaiting trial but are not detained.

Win Myint became president last month, after his predecessor, Htin Kyaw, stepped down because of illness.

The Facebook page of Deputy Information Minister Aung Hla Tun said the presidential action was taken "as a gesture of marking the Myanmar New Year and after taking into consideration the prevalence of peace of mind among the people, humanitarian concerns and friendly relations among nations."

The release of political prisoners was a priority of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party when it took over power from a pro-military government in March 2016. Suu Kyi is the country's de facto leader, holding the specially created post of State Counsellor. Constitutional rules prohibit her from serving as president because her two children are British, as was her late husband.

When Suu Kyi's government took power in 2016, it made it a priority to release political prisoners detained during military rule, freeing almost 200 within a month.

However, critics of Suu Kyi's government say it also has pursued politically motivated prosecutions, citing cases against land rights activists and journalists.

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