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Algeria releases dozens of jailed pro-democracy activists after presidential pardons

Pardons issued by President Tebboune ahead of second anniversary of Hirak uprising, with prominent journalist Khaled Drareni among those freed
Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni is greeted by supporters upon his release from Kolea prison, west of the capital, Algiers, on 19 February 2021 (AFP)

Algerian authorities have released at least 35 pro-democracy activists from jail in the past 24 hours under presidential pardons issued ahead of the second anniversary of the popular Hirak uprising, rights groups said.

The Hirak protest movement, which swept Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019, marks its second anniversary on Monday, with calls on social media for demonstrations to mark the day.

On Saturday, rights group the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD) said that at least 35 people had been released from jail in the past 24 hours, AFP reported. 

Algerian activists released ahead of Hirak anniversary
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The justice ministry had reported on Friday the release of 33 detainees held over acts linked to "the use of social media networks," adding that procedures were underway for others.

The CNLD estimates that around 70 people were in prison over their links with the Hirak or other peaceful opposition political activity.

Among those pardoned on Friday was prominent journalist Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for French-language TV5 Monde and press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

He was jailed for his coverage of the Hirak protests, and, like many other detainees, accused of incitement.

'Step in the right direction'

"My fight [for freedom of the press] will continue," Drareni told TV5 Monde after his release from Kolea prison, west of Algiers.

TV5 Monde hailed his release after 11 months in detention.

"He was detained and sentenced for doing his job as a journalist," network head Yves Bigot said in a statement on Saturday.

RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire called the release a step "in the right direction" after "11 months of injustice".

On Thursday, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in a long-awaited speech to the nation, declared dozens of pardons in a gesture of appeasement, as the Hirak protest movement, which had suspended its rallies in March last year amid coronavirus restrictions, gathers momentum once again.

'A decision that recognises the importance of freedom of expression and pluralism in the democratic process'

- Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief

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.

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

The US and the EU welcomed the releases and voiced support for freedom of expression in Algeria.

"We hope to see positive steps like these continue," a US State Department spokesperson said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the pardons in a tweet as a "decision that recognises the importance of freedom of expression and pluralism in the democratic process". 

On Thursday, Tebboune also announced early elections, calling for the dissolution of parliament and declaring a government reshuffle within 48 hours.

Activists, however, have rejected calls for a new election and demand 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." 

Legislative elections had been scheduled to be held in 2022, but Tebboune wants polls to take place before the end of the year.