The Philippines on Monday freed the first batch of 10 political prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Muslim and communist rebel groups ahead of the resumption of stalled peace talks.
Still wearing their orange prison shirts, the former inmates raised their fists and broke into victory chants as Justice Secretary Hernando Perez turned them over to their lawyer.
Seventeen prisoners were presented for release in all, but Perez said seven had pending appeals with higher courts and could not be freed immediately.
“As soon as they have withdrawn their appeals, they shall be released,” Perez explained.
Some of the inmates, whose crimes ranged from murder, robbery, kidnapping and illegal possession of firearms, have been languishing in jail for 19 years, Perez said.
The 10 belong to a group of 73 so-called “political detainees” the government had earlier approved for conditional release in a bid to entice communist guerrillas and the Muslim separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) back to the negotiating table.
Of the 73, 19 were suspected members of the MILF jailed in connection with two separate bomb attacks in Manila malls last year in which one person was killed and dozens were wounded.
The others are belong to left-wing organizations allied with communist insurgents.
It was not clear whether those released Monday were leftists or MILF members.
The MILF is the country’s main Muslim insurgent group waging a 23-year rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the south.
It has welcomed government’s peace offer, but has not reciprocated a unilateral cease-fire earlier ordered by President Gloria Arroyo.
The underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) meanwhile has said it would only resume peace talks with Manila if government released all the over 200 political prisoners in jail.