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Myanmar frees famed activist monk

BBC News BBC News 1/07/2016 Jonah Fisher

File photo of Shin Gambira, leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance, talking to supporters while attending a court hearing in Yangon: U Gambira was one of the most prominent monks during the Saffron Revolution © Reuters U Gambira was one of the most prominent monks during the Saffron Revolution

One of Myanmar's most famous activist monks has been released from prison in Yangon.

U Gambira, a key figure in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" was due to complete a six month jail sentence this week.

But fresh charges had been brought against him in an apparent bid to keep him behind bars.

"I am very, very, very, happy now," Gambira told me by phone from outside Insein prison.

He said it wasn't clear to him why the charges had been dropped.

A spokesman for Myanmar's State Counsellor -and de facto leader - Aung San Suu Kyi said he had been released as part of a review of all those charged with politically related offences.

Solitary confinement and beatings

Gambira first came to prominence during the demonstrations of August 2007 - an uprising of monks against increased commodity prices that turned into a more general protest about military rule.

He was one of the key leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, speaking at rallies and organising street protests in what became known as the Saffron Revolution.

Buddhist monks march in the rain along Waizayantar Road in the Yangon suburb of Ahlone on 19 September 2007.: Gambira and the other monks made powerful enemies © AP Gambira and the other monks made powerful enemies

When the Burmese military crushed the protests, Gambira went into hiding, but he was eventually caught, put on trial and sentenced to 68 years in prison. Conditions in jail were harsh and Gambira was kept in solitary confinement for long periods and beaten by guards.

With former President Thein Sein's political reforms came prisoner amnesties, and Gambira was released in one of the largest, in January 2012. It was clear that the experience had left him with serious mental health issues.

Now a free man, Gambira resigned from the monkhood and after a brief courtship married an Australian activist. He's spent most of the last four years in Thailand but returned to Myanmar to try get a passport that would allow him to travel to Australia.

Things quickly went wrong. Gambira was arrested in Mandalay and in January sentenced to six months in prison for immigration offences.

The exterior of Insein Prison, viewed through a wire fence, with a guard outside the entrance. 27 June 2016.: Many political prisoners have been kept at the notorious Insein prison © AFP Many political prisoners have been kept at the notorious Insein prison 'I need medication'

This week, with his wife counting down the days to his release, Gambira was moved to Yangon's Insein prison and charged with a series of fresh offences.

It was a crude way to keep him behind bars and human rights groups rallied to his cause.

For once, it appears someone was listening and on Thursday night Gambira's lawyer Robert San Aung told the BBC that court officials had informed him that all the new charges were being dropped.

On Friday that was confirmed and he walked free.

"I need medication," he told me. "I will stay in Myanmar just a few days then I will go to Thailand and then to Australia. I have to try and get a passport first."

Zaw Htay, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's spokesmen denied that she had intervened directly in Gambira's case but said: "This is a consequence of the review process of all those charged with political activities that was initiated according to the instructions of the State Counsellor [Suu Kyi]."

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