Algeria released a dozen “Hirak” protest movement activists from jail on Friday, 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.
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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 to be released soon.
About 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty, Tebboune said, with their release to start immediately.
About 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 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 20km (12 miles) west of the capital Algiers.
Among the prisoners held in Kolea is journalist Khaled Drareni, who was 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.
Tebboune also announced on Thursday the dissolution of the lower house of parliament and called for early legislative elections.
Algeria is facing political and economic crises, with the pandemic adding to the woes of an oil-dependent economy.
On Tuesday, thousands of Algerians rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first big 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”.