Algeria frees first activists after presidential pardons

AFP , Friday 19 Feb 2021

Around 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty

People watch Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaking on television, Thursday, Feb.18, 2021 in Algiers AP

Algeria on Friday released a dozen "Hirak" protest movement activists from jail, the first batch freed under presidential pardons issued ahead of the second anniversary of a popular uprising.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in a long-awaited speech to the nation late Thursday, declared dozens of pardons in a gesture of appeasement as the protest movement gathers momentum once again.

The "Hirak", meaning "movement" in Arabic, swept former strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019, but continued after his fall.

The National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD), a rights group, announced the release on Friday, with more prisoners expected also to be soon released.

Around 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty, he said, with their release to start immediately.

Around 70 people are currently in prison over their links with the Hirak movement or other peaceful opposition political activity, according to the CNLD.

Many of them were arrested for posting anti-government posts on social media.

The presidency said the pardon would cover "perpetrators of crimes related to information and communication technologies".

On Friday, journalists and families gathered to wait for prisoners to be freed outside the jail in Kolea, a town 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of the capital Algiers.

Among the prisoners held in Kolea is journalist Khaled Drareni, sentenced to two years in prison in September, and who has become a symbol of the fight for press freedom in Algeria.

Tebboune's initiative comes on the eve of the Hirak's second anniversary on February 22, demanding a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria's independence from France in 1962.

The unprecedented protest movement only suspended its rallies in March last year as the novel coronavirus reached the North African country.

Algeria is facing political and economic crises, with the pandemic adding to the woes of an oil-dependent economy.

On Tuesday, thousands of Algerian rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth presidential term.

Protesters demanded "the fall of the regime" and "the release of prisoners of conscience".

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