Myanmar’s military government on Saturday freed the 82-year-old deputy leader of the pro-democracy party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi after nearly seven years in detention.
The release of Tin Oo, who helped found the National League for Democracy with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, comes shortly before a U.N. envoy visits the country. Ms. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.
Mr. Tin Oo spent nearly seven years in prison and under house arrest. The junta had renewed his detention on an annual basis since his arrest in 2003, with his latest term expiring on Saturday.
Reporters saw four officials enter Mr. Tin Oo’s residence, where he had been detained. He later emerged from the building.
The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, is to arrive on Monday to evaluate its progress on human rights issues. Rights groups say the junta still holds about 2,100 political prisoners.
Mr. Tin Oo was arrested along with Ms. Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003, when a pro-government mob attacked their motorcade as they were making a political tour of northern Myanmar.
Four people were killed and 50 injured in the incident, according to official figures, but dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Hundreds of members and supporters of Ms. Suu Kyi’s party were arrested, but none of the attackers was ever brought to court.
Mr. Tin Oo was initially held in Kalay prison, known for its harsh conditions, about 430 miles (700 kilometers) north of Yangon. Since February 2004 he was held under house arrest in Yangon. His telephone was cut off, he was not allowed to receive visitors and relatives said he had been denied regular medical checkups.
A highly decorated commander, Mr. Tin Oo rose to the rank of general and served as defence minister during the 26-year socialist regime of late dictator Ne Win. He was forced into retirement in 1976 and imprisoned for three years for alleged involvement in a plot to kill Ne Win. But it is widely believed that Ne Win wanted to eliminate the highly popular Mr. Tin Oo as a potential rival.
Mr. Tin Oo spent another three years in prison after the founding of Ms. Suu Kyi’s party.
A trusted ally to Ms. Suu Kyi, Mr. Tin Oo accompanied her on her travels around the country to rally for democracy.
On Friday, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party called for Mr. Tin Oo’s unconditional release, saying he had been detained because of his “unrelenting efforts for the emergence of democracy and human rights in the country.”
Home Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Oo, reportedly said last month that Mr. Tin Oo would be freed in February and Ms. Suu Kyi would be released in November. His comments were made during remarks to local officials in central Myanmar and reported by the U.S.-government backed Radio Free Asia and other media, and could not be independently confirmed.
The junta took power in 1988 after violently suppressing mass pro-democracy protests. It held general elections in 1990, but refused to recognize the results after Ms. Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory.
Ms. Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years. Her house arrest was extended in August by an additional 18 months, and there is no indication that she will be allowed to participate in long-awaited elections this year.
The junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, said on Friday that elections would be held “soon” but gave no date.
The government still needs to pass election laws to pave the way for the vote.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s party has not yet decided whether to take part in the elections. The party says the new constitution of 2008 is unfair and will perpetuate military rule - a claim backed by international rights groups. The constitution guarantees that 25 percent of parliamentary seats will go to the military. It also has a clause that effectively bars Ms. Suu Kyi from holding office.