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Algeria frees first democracy activists after presidential pardons

The pardon's come on eve of Hirak's second anniversary, with calls on social media for demonstrations on 22 February
Relatives of prisoners and journalists gathered on Friday outside Kolea prison, west of the capital Algiers (AFP)

Algeria released a dozen pro-democracy protestors on Friday as part of a series of planned presidential pardons ahead of the second anniversary of the downfall of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.  

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

Earlier this week, hundreds of Algerians defied coronavirus restrictions and a ban on demonstrations to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak protests in Kherrata.

The Hirak protests, meaning "movement" in Arabic, saw the downfall of Bouteflika in 2019 after the ageing statesman planned to run for a fifth term. 

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

Relatives of prisoners and journalists gathered on Friday outside the Kolea prison, west of the capital Algiers.

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Among the prisoners 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.

"Behind the fence, we are waiting for Khaled," said fellow journalist Mohamed Sidoummou. "We are all optimistic." 

It is not confirmed if Drareni, a correspondent for French-language TV5 Monde and press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, will be included in the pardon.

The CNLD said at least 70 people had been detained because of their links with the Hirak movement. 

Tebboune said at least 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty. 

He also announced early elections, a call for parliament's dissolution and a government reshuffle within 48 hours. 

Activists, however, have rejected calls for a new election and demanded more substantial changes. 

"Democracy is not limited to elections but to the exercise of democratic freedoms," said Said Salhi, from the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights.

"The Hirak calls for a change of the system through an authentic and open democratic process."