Algeria frees prominent war veteran, government critics

Some 180 activists, protesters and journalists were arrested and held prior to a controversial December 12 election.

    Before his arrest, Bouregaa took part in the demonstrations that have rocked Algeria since last February [Ryad Kramdi/AFP]
    Before his arrest, Bouregaa took part in the demonstrations that have rocked Algeria since last February [Ryad Kramdi/AFP]

    Algeria has released several prominent anti-government protest figures from detention, including well-known independence war veteran Lakhdar Bouregaa, according to one of his lawyers.

    Bouregaa was freed on Thursday from Algiers prison where he had been held for six months, local media reported.

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    "His trial, which was due to start this morning, has been postponed and the judge has decided to release him," his lawyer Abdelghani Badi told AFP.

    Bouregaa, 86, was arrested at his home in the capital, Algiers, last June for "insulting a state body" and "taking part in a scheme to demoralise the army with the aim of harming the nation's defence". 

    His supporters attributed his detention to his criticism of late army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who became the country's de-facto ruler after the fall of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.

    Gaid Salah died of a heart attack in December.

    Badi said Bouregaa, who underwent emergency surgery for a hernia during his detention in November, would remain free during his trial, postponed until March 12.

    High-profile detentions

    Bouregaa was a commander of the National Liberation Army - which fought French colonial rule - and a founder in 1963 of the Front for Socialist Forces, one of Algeria's oldest opposition parties.

    Before his arrest, Bouregaa took part in demonstrations that rocked Algeria since last February - initially against Bouteflika, and then against the wider establishment after the president was forced to resign.

    Bouregaa's arrest provoked outrage in Algeria, notably from supporters of the "Hirak" protest movement, who branded him a "prisoner of conscience" and demanded his release.

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    Among the other detainees freed on bail on Thursday was retired general Hocine Benhadid, according to Kaci Tanasaout, head of support group The National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners.

    The 73-year-old was also accused of "demoralising the army" after criticising Gaid Salah.

    Adelhamid Amine, who was sentenced to three months imprisonment for his anti-government cartoons under the pen name "Nime", was released having served one month, Tansaout said.

    About 180 protesters, activists and journalists were arrested ahead of an unpopular presidential election on December 12, many for waving banned Berber flags at protests or making critical comments online.

    Some were acquitted, often after months of pre-trial detention. Another 30 were convicted of "attacking the integrity of the territory" and were recently released after serving six-month sentences.

    About 140 others remain in prison, either convicted or awaiting judgement.

    After a vote overshadowed by low turnout, Abelmadjid Tebboune was sworn in as Algeria's new president on December 19. A former prime minister who served under Bouteflika, he is seen as an establishment insider.

    The development came as Algeria appointed a new government on Thursday.

    SOURCE: News agencies