Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika (search) has pardoned 651 prisoners across the country as one way of marking the festive season, a senior government minister said Saturday.

"The president has invoked his clemency prerogative to pardon the prisoners as the world celebrates Christmas and New Year," Home Affairs minister Uladi Mussa (search) told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the capital, Lilongwe (search).

Mussa said those pardoned do not include inmates convicted of offenses like armed robbery or rape. He said prisoners who completed half their sentences and showed signs of remorse qualified for release, as did all chronically sick prisoners.

"Even murder suspects seriously ill with conditions like AIDS-related illness qualify for pardon for they need close attention by physicians and their close relatives," he said.

There are some 9,500 prisoners crammed into Malawi's 23 prisons, which have a capacity for 4,500 inmates.

Authorities have launched a pilot project to test the feasibility of community service for those convicted of minor offenses to ease overcrowding. Human rights groups have long urged such a move.

After touring three hospitals in Lilongwe, President Mutharika also promised to provide 500 mattresses to try to reduce the number of patients forced to share beds or sleep on the floor.

He also vowed to improve working conditions for nurses to try to stem the outflow of health workers to countries like Britain.

There are reportedly more Malawian medical personnel in the British city of Manchester than there are in the whole of Malawi (search), a small, impoverished southern African nation.