JOHANNESBURG — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The South African government released eight political prisoners yesterday amid growing concerns that the men would suffer irreparable damage to their health after 23 days on hunger strike.
The action brought to nine the number of prisoners freed by the government this week in an apparent response to the combined pressure of the hunger strike and stepped-up protests by the African National Congress.
The Human Rights Commission, an independent panel that monitors government human rights violations, said 73 prisoners remained on strike, out of more than 200 at the beginning. It said 20 remained hospitalized.
Focus on the condition of political prisoners took the spotlight away from a controversial conference sponsored by President Frederik W. de Klerk's government to discuss ways to curb violence in the country.
The ANC and most other predominantly black political groups, such as the Pan Africanist Congress, boycotted the conference to protest the government's handling of violent outbreaks in black townships, its failure to release all political prisoners and its failure to meet other political demands of the anti-apartheid movement.
The prisoner release followed a week of protests led by the ANC to show sympathy with the prisoners and increase pressure on the government to release them. On Thursday, Winnie Mandela and a dozen other women were arrested for blocking traffic in downtown Johannesburg, and the ANC's top military commander, Chris Hani, was picked up by police after leading an illegal protest in front of the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.
Yesterday, ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela visited six hunger-striking prisoners who were hospitalized in Cape Town, and another top ANC official, Walter Sisulu, visited 10 prisoners at a hospital in Johannesburg.
Mr. Sisulu said that the ANC welcomed the release of the nine prisoners this week but added that "the government should not wait until they are at a critical stage to act."
Mr. Mandela told reporters in Cape Town that he met with Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee on Thursday and was given the impression that the government understood the gravity of the prisoners' situation.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu also met with Mr. de Klerk Thursday to express his "deep concern" for the hunger strikers. He said the president promised to expedite the process required for the release of political prisoners.
"They are all very weak physically," said Judy Moon, a spokeswoman for the Robben Island Hunger Strike Committee, who accompanied Mr. Mandela on his visit.
"One of the prisoners was so weak he actually collapsed while we were there," she said.
She said some of the prisoners had lost 40 to 50 pounds during the hunger strike, which was started May 1 by inmates demanding to be released in accordance with the government's agreement last year to free all political prisoners by April 30.
Mr. Coetsee said the government had released 1,003 political prisoners over the past year under its agreement with the ANC. The organization has demanded that the government free everyone imprisoned for crimes committed as a result of opposition to apartheid.
Mr. Coetsee said that only a small number of prisoners guilty of "heinous" crimes remained in prison and that the government had never agreed to release everyone who claimed to be a political prisoner.
"People who have been convicted for bestiality and rape have claimed political status and therefore their release," the justice minister commented.