KOLEA, ALGERIA - Algeria released more than 30 pro-democracy activists from jail on Friday, including a prominent journalist, in the first batch freed under presidential pardons issued ahead of the second anniversary of a popular uprising.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared in a speech Thursday dozens of pardons in a gesture of appeasement as the Hirak protest movement, which swept former strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019, gathers momentum once again.
"So far 33 people have been released. Procedures are under way for the rest," the justice ministry said in a statement.
Tebboune's initiative comes ahead of the Hirak's second anniversary on February 22, with calls on social media for demonstrations on Monday to mark the day.
Algeria is facing political and economic crises, with the coronavirus pandemic adding to the woes of an oil-dependent economy.
Among those pardoned was prominent journalist Khalid Drareni, 40, who walked out of the Kolea prison on Friday, his lawyer Abdelghani Badi said, adding however, that his release was provisional.
A huge crowd of well-wishers greeted Drareni, a correspondent for French-language TV5 Monde and press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
He was sentenced in August to three years in jail for his coverage of the Hirak protest movement. In September, his sentenced was reduced by a year, though his supporters remained outraged it hadn't been scrapped entirely.
"I thank all those who supported me and prisoners of conscience. Your support is an essential proof of our innocence," Drareni said in a video posted on Twitter after his release.
Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch regional communications director, said Drareni "shouldn't have spent one minute in prison. He was only doing his job," in a Twitter post.
RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire called it a step "in the right direction" after "11 months of injustice."
'People must be sovereign'
Relatives of prisoners and journalists had gathered outside the Kolea prison, west of the capital Algiers, from the early hours of the morning.
Pictures and videos posted online showed former detainees reuniting with friends and family in several parts of Algeria.
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD) around 70 people are in prison over their links with the Hirak or other peaceful opposition political activity.
Tebboune said that around 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty.
Drareni is still waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on his appeal on February 25, according to lawyer and rights activists Mostefa Bouchachi.
Also released on Friday was opposition figure and businessman Rachid Nekkaz, 47, who had been detained since December 2019 and accused of incitement, according to the CNLD.
Nekkaz was held at the El Bayadh prison, in the country's southwest, where earlier on Friday he started a hunger strike to protest his detention, relatives and friends said.
Hirak activist Dalila Touat, who had been on hunger strike in prison since January 3, was also released Friday.
"We hope that the amnesty will be a first step towards a real political transition in which the people will be sovereign," Badi told AFP, as he waited outside Kolea prison for the release of his client, Drareni.
'Far from enough'
The unprecedented Hirak protest movement, demanding a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria's independence from France in 1962, only suspended its rallies in March last year amid coronavirus restrictions.
On Tuesday, thousands of Algerians rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth presidential term.
On Friday, usually the day of Hirak marches, police deployed in large numbers in central Algiers.
"Algerians will continue to demonstrate peacefully to put pressure on the system so that it really changes," Bouchachi said.
Tebboune on Thursday also announced early elections, calling for the dissolution of parliament and declaring a government reshuffle within 48 hours.
Legislative elections had been scheduled to be held in 2022, but Tebboune wants early polls to take place before year's end.
But activists and other Algerians said elections alone were not enough.
"Democracy is not limited to elections but to the exercise of democratic freedoms," said Said Salhi, from the Algerian League for Human Rights.
"The Hirak calls for a change of the system through an authentic and open democratic process."
Taxi driver Mussa Abdelli agreed: "The people are not satisfied by the government's decisions. We want to build an independent and free nation and the pardon is far from enough."