Burma frees dissident comedian

But Zarganar's freedom is 'conditional'

Burmese comedian Zarganar has been released from his 35-year prison sentence for criticising the military regime.

The comic became the focus of a major international campaign highlighting the plight of political prisoners in Burma, after he was arrested in 2008 after publicly criticising the response to Cyclone Nargis.

Authorities have now announced an amnesty to free 6,000 prisoners, with Zarganar one of the first few dozen to be released.

But he told the BBC his freedom was conditional. ‘If I do something wrong they will send me back,’ he said.

It is not known how many of the 6,000 are political prisoners, but Amnesty International has been calling for the release of 2,200 such detainees for years.

A press officer for the campaign group say today’s news should be ‘cautiously welcomed’ but added that it did not mean persecution of dissenters was a thing of the past in the nation,

But in an Amnesty blog, the charity official wrote: ‘Hearing Burma's new human rights body call for the release of "prisoners of conscience"  would have been inconceivable this time last year. [It’s] the stuff that dreams are made of, and progress by degrees,is, in my view, still progress.’

Zarangar was banned from the stage in Burma for making jokes about the regime, but when he criticised the response to 2008‘s Cyclone Nargis disaster which killed 140,000 he set up his own aid effort, organising relief to affected villages. He was subsequently convicted of ‘public order offences’.

British comics including Andy Parsons, Mark Watson and Josie Long had joined the campaign to release Zarganar. Stand-up Rob Rouse said his situation was ‘like sticking Lenny Henry in prison for Comic Relief’.

Zarganar’s plight was also the subject of a film, This Prison Where I Live, and the campaign for his release was also backed by performers’ union Equity.

On hearing today's news, Parsons said: 'This is great news - although I guess a cautious welcome. "Conditional release" sounds a bit like you are on parole for life.'

Equity general secretary Christine Pane added: 'This is a great day. Our members have been fighting for Zarganar's freedom for years, however it is still very early in the broader campaign for artistic freedom in Burma.'

Last year, Burma held its first elections in two decades, with the military rule replaced with a military-backed civilian-led government. Since then the new rulers have freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as announcing an amnesty of another 15,000 prisoners. The country is under sanctions from the West on a range of human rights issues, including its jailing of dissidents.

Here is Parsons explaining Zarangar’s position last year:

Published: 12 Oct 2011

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