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Egypt Frees 950 Gamaa Islamiya Prisoners

Egypt has released 950 jailed members of the militant Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya. Some of them have been in prison since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat 25 years ago.

The group's lawyer says about 950 members of Gamaa Islamiya have been released over the last 10 days. The largest group, several hundred, were freed Tuesday, in honor of a Muslim holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Those released include several senior figures, some of whom have been imprisoned for more than 20 years.

Gamaa Islamiya was once Egypt's largest militant Islamist group, responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in the 1990s, including the 1997 attack in Luxor that killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians.

The group's leaders renounced violence and entered into a truce with the government in the late 1990s. Hundreds of its members have been released over the last few years, but never quite this many.

Montasser El-Zayat is a lawyer who has defended members of Gamaa Islamiya in court.

"I would say the Interior Ministry has come to believe that Gamaa Islamiya has really modified its position, its members have changed their thinking, and releasing them would pose no danger," he said.

It is still not clear how many members of Gamaa Islamiya and other banned groups remain in Egyptian prisons. The U.S. State Department estimates the number around 10,000, but El-Zayat says the Egyptian government has never released figures.

"The problem is that there are no statistics on the exact number of people who have been arrested," he noted. "There are also no statistics on the number of those released."

Egypt's other main armed militant group is Islamic Jihad, which unlike Gamaa Islamiya has not renounced violence or struck a deal with the government. El-Zayat suspects that will change.

"I think in the next period there will be extensive dialogues with the jailed members of Islamic Jihad," he noted.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised to repeal the restrictive emergency law that has been in effect since Mr. Sadat's assassination 25 years ago. He will replace the emergency law with an anti-terrorism law that critics say will probably be no better when it comes to human rights. But El-Zayat says when the emergency law is repealed, prisoners who are currently being held under it will probably have to be released. He suspects the government will want to clear the prisons out gradually beforehand, so he expects more detainees to be released before the new law is enacted.