More than 150 Chinese workers sentenced to life in prison for illegal logging were freed in Myanmar on Thursday under a massive presidential pardon that included nearly 7,000 prisoners.
Others who were freed included former military intelligence officials purged by their army colleagues more than a decade ago, and at least a handful of journalists and social activists.
An Information Ministry statement said 6,966 prisoners, including 210 foreigners, were being freed across the country "on humanitarian grounds and in view of national reconciliation." No official lists of pardoned prisoners are issued, so the names usually come from the prisoners themselves or their families. The majority are common criminals.
The pardons issued by President Thein Sein were timed to coincide with a Buddhist religious holiday and come ahead of a November general election. The polls have triggered criticism that the government is backsliding on political reforms it promised upon taking power in 2011, after almost five decades of repressive military rule. Past governments have released political prisoners as a way of easing criticism from abroad.
Those released included 155 Chinese workers, all but two of whom received life sentences earlier this month in connection with illegal logging in northern Myanmar. Their jail terms drew much ire in China, which is a top ally of Myanmar. The punishment seemed largely to serve as a warning not to make business deals with Myanmar ethnic rebel groups, as the Chinese logging company was believed to have done.
China's Foreign Ministry said Myanmar authorities had notified Chinese officials that the 155 would be handed over to their custody on Friday.
Despite close ties, there are significant tensions between China and Myanmar. Chinese economic penetration is big and highly visible in northern Myanmar, and some large infrastructure and mining projects have drawn charges of being insensitive to the environment and local concerns.
China is also seen as providing a safe haven for some Myanmar ethnic rebel groups, with whom Myanmar's government wants to reach cease-fire agreements.
Others who were pardoned included eight former senior military intelligence officers, who since 2004 have been serving jail terms of 80 years or more, according to their families.
Also freed Thursday were the owner, publisher and three journalists from a privately-run weekly journal, Bi Mon Te. They were sentenced to two years last November on charges of causing public alarm.
Although more than 1,300 political prisoners have been freed since Thein Sein's government took power, right groups say hundreds of new cases are still pending.