Myanmar’s new ruling junta is releasing tens of thousands of prisoners Friday as angry protests against the military coup continue for the seventh straight day.
Some 23,314 prisoners are set to be granted amnesty and released on Union Day, a national public holiday observing unification of the country, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said in a statement. It is unclear what offenses the prisoners were convicted of.
While mass prisoner releases are common on national holidays in Myanmar this is the first such amnesty from the new junta, which seized power in a coup on February 1, ousting democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and detaining key government officials.
The military justified taking control of the country by claiming widespread voting irregularities in the November 2020 election, which gave Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) a second consecutive landslide victory.
In a statement Friday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) expressed “serious concern” that the amnesty was to “clear space for the detention of political prisoners.”
In addition to the release, prisoners who are serving sentences for crimes committed before January 31, 2021, for any offense will also have their sentences reduced, according to the military statement.
In his address, Min Aung Hlaing said the prisoner amnesty was part of an effort to build a “democratic country with disciplines.”
There is no indication that Suu Kyi or other government ministers or officials detained in the coup will be released as part of the amnesty. Nor is the amnesty is unlikely to cool protesters’ anger toward the military generals.
Protests and civil disobedience campaigns continued in towns and cities across the country Friday. Videos and live streams posted online showed several groups marching in the biggest city Yangon, including medical workers and soccer fans.
Large gatherings are also expected at the United States, Chinese and British embassies in Yangon.
The rallies have so far been largely peaceful but police have been recorded using water cannon against protesters. Police have also faced allegations they have deployed live rounds.
A young woman named Mya Thweh Thweh Khine remains in critical condition Friday morning at a hospital in the capital Naypyidaw with a gunshot wound in the head, a source with direct information about the victim told CNN.
Video of the incident circulated online showed a young woman suddenly falling to the ground while taking cover from a water canon at a protest.
Experts at rights group Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab said that images takes near a protest in Naypyidaw on February 9, show a police officer holding a locally made variant of an Uzi sub-machine gun.
The rights group said the images were taken from a location near the Thabyegone Roundabout, across the road from where the young woman was shot in the head.
Amnesty said it has verified the coordinates of the image which shows an officer holding a “Myanmar-made BA-94 or BA-93 Uzi clone.” CNN has not been able to independently verify the image.
The findings are in direct contradiction to claims by the military that no lethal weapons were used during protests, Amnesty said.
Myanmar’s military posted on its Facebook page on February 10 that it only used anti-riot weapons at the protest near the Thabyegone Roundabout and was investigating reports that two protesters had been injured.
Sam Dubberley, Head of Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab said in a press release, “The serious injuries sustained by this young woman were caused by the Myanmar police firing live ammunition directly towards peaceful protesters.”
Mya Thweh Thweh Khine has since become a symbol of the protests, with demonstrators holding portraits of her image as they march.
On Thursday, Min Aung Hlaing issued a warning to protesters, which include a large cross section of society including monks and a growing number of public workers, urging them to go back to work.
“Those who are away from their duties are requested to return to their duties immediately for the interests of the country and people without focusing on the emotion,” he said.
Min Aung Hlaing blamed government employees’ recent absenteeism on harassment by “unscrupulous persons,” in a statement issued by the ruling military’s official information service.
In response to the ongoing protests the country’s military has sought to limit access to the internet and news services, as well as floating a potential new cyber security law that observers fear could further limit the flow of information.
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden announced that the US would move ahead with sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders following last week’s coup.
In brief remarks, the President said he had approved a new executive order allowing the US to “immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.” He said they would identify targets of those sanctions this week.
Biden also called on the military junta to release detained protesters and civilian leaders, including Suu Kyi and Win Myint and cease their crackdowns on demonstrators.
CNN’s Helen Regan contributed reporting.