Algeria Frees First Democracy Activists after Presidential Pardons

Tebboune on Friday said he would 'extend a hand' to the protest movement 'for a dialogue to build a new Algeria' [Ryad Kramdi/AFP]

Tebboune on Friday said he would ‘extend a hand’ to the protest movement ‘for a dialogue to build a new Algeria’ [Ryad Kramdi/AFP]
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 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.