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Burma Frees Prisoners as US Renews Sanctions

Released prisoners stand up before Burma's prison department chief Zaw Win speaks in a hall at Insein Prison in Rangoon, May 17, 2011.

Burma began releasing thousands of prisoners Tuesday under a limited clemency program that will have little impact on the nation's political prisoners.

Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have said the government must go further and immediately release Burma's estimated 2,200 political prisoners. U.S. President Barack Obama renewed American economic sanctions on Burma for another year Monday, saying the large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in that country has not been resolved.

The clemency program, proclaimed Monday by President Thein Sein, commuted death sentences to life imprisonment and reduced all other jail terms by one year.

The government Tuesday began releasing more than 14,000 prisoners who had less than one year left on their terms. However the release was expected to affect very few political prisoners, most of who are serving terms of up to 65 years.

The French news agency AFP quoted an unidentified Burmese official saying the release would include some intelligence officers who were on the losing side of a power struggle in 2004. However former prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt is serving a 44-year sentence and was not expected to be freed.

Human Rights Watch on Monday dismissed the clemency program as a "pathetic response" to demands for increased political freedom. It called the program a "slap in the face" for a senior United Nations envoy who had just urged the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

Vijay Nambiar, the chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, made the call at the end of a visit to Burma last week.