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Myanmar president pardons jailed aid workers

August 29, 2012 | 11:18 am

Three aid workers, including two employed by United Nations agencies, have been pardoned by Myanmar President Thein Sein after being sentenced last week, the U.N. said Wednesday.

The charges that landed the three people in jail remain murky, but appear to involve their alleged roles in the outbreak of violence earlier this summer in Rakhine state. A U.N. human rights envoy had earlier called for them to be freed, saying charges against them were unfounded.

The president announced the pardon on his website Tuesday, giving no reason for the decision. Eri Kaneko, associate spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, said it was still unclear at this time if the three workers had been freed.

“This is all coming to us rather suddenly,” Kaneko said. “What we can say for now is that we welcome their release.”

The aid workers were sentenced last week in Maungdaw District Court in western Myanmar, with scant information given to the United Nations about their alleged crimes, the charges and the sentences. One worked for the U.N. World Food Program, one for the U.N. refugee agency, and one for a partnering nonprofit. They reportedly faced prison terms ranging from two to six years.

The three detainees were among a dozen humanitarian workers imprisoned in June after deadly riots erupted in Rakhine between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. A Myanmar news outlet, Eleven News Journal, reported the three were allegedly involved in arson and promoting hatred.

Several of the aid workers were released earlier this month, upsetting Rakhine politicians who claimed they were behind the unrest. Another U.N. employee still remains in detention, Kaneko said, declining to give any additional information about which agency the jailed staffer works for.

Hundreds of Rohingya men and boys were also rounded up after the violence, Human Rights Watch said earlier this month.

Tensions between ethnic groups in Myanmar could undermine its recent steps toward reform, with Myanmar continuing to effectively cut Rohingya Muslims out of citizenship, human rights groups have warned. The June eruption of violence in Rakhine and the detained aid workers have drawn added attention to the simmering problem, which Myanmar has sought to downplay, saying that the violence wasn't linked to religious or ethnic persecution.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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