YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Thein Zaw, an Associated Press reporter who was arrested more than three weeks ago while covering a protest against the coup in Myanmar, was released on Wednesday.
Visibly skinnier than before his arrest, Thein Zaw waved and smiled at photographers as he left Yangon’s Insein Prison, known for decades for holding political prisoners.
His brothers and best friend took him home, which is an area in Yangon that has been placed under martial law. He told the AP that his mother told him through tears: “We thought we would never see you again. ”
Thein Zaw had said earlier that the judge handling his case announced at a hearing that all charges against him were dropped because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.
He said that during his detention he was “worried every day” and that last week he celebrated his 33rd birthday behind bars.
Despite his relief, he expressed concern about the many journalists who remain in jail.
“Thank you to everyone who tried so hard for my release,” he said. “But one thing that bothers me is that there are people who are still inside, and I hope they can get out as soon as possible.”
Thein Zaw’s father, Ba Win, greeted him with shampoo because local custom is that people returning from prison should wash their hair before entering the house. Her parents made curried pork and curried fish for her first meal at home.
His release was also moving for lawyer Tin Zar Oo, who said he cried and jumped with joy when the judge announced the charges were dropped.
“I was so happy. Thein Zaw looked at me, and I was even at a loss for words when they asked me if I had something to say, ”she said. “I hugged Thein Zaw and we both cried with joy.
His client had been charged with breaking a public order law punishable by up to three years in prison.
He was one of nine media workers arrested during a street protest on February 27 in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and had been held without bail. About 40 journalists have been arrested or charged since the February 1 coup to overthrow the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, about half of whom are still behind bars.
Authorities have also arrested thousands of protesters since the takeover as part of an increasingly brutal crackdown. More than 600 protesters were released on Wednesday, a rare gesture of conciliation on the part of the military which seemed to aim to appease the protest movement.
The PA and numerous press freedom organizations have called for the release of Thein Zaw and other members of the detained press.
“The Associated Press is deeply relieved that PA journalist Thein Zaw has been released from prison in Myanmar,” said Ian Phillips, PA vice president for international news. “Our relief is tempered by the fact that additional journalists remain detained there. We urge Myanmar to release all journalists and allow them to report freely and safely on what is happening inside the country. “
Thein Zaw was arrested while photographing police, some armed, charging anti-coup protesters in a street. A video shows that although he got to the side of the street to get out of their way, several policemen rushed over and surrounded him. One put him in a choke while he was handcuffed and then taken away.
Tin Zar Oo saw his client for the first time since his arrest during a hearing on March 12 in which his pre-trial detention was renewed – and even then, it was via video link.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute welcomed the release, saying he “had been arrested for doing his job as a journalist and should never have been behind bars in the first place.”
“Myanmar must now immediately release all other journalists it detains,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the institute. “The military junta must end all forms of harassment and intimidation of the media covering the protests against the coup and end restrictions on publication and dissemination by the country’s media.”