Algeria to free nearly 3,000 jailed Islamists under amnesty
March 6, 2006
March 6, 2006 Algeria to Free Jailed Islamists Under Amnesty
By REUTERS ALGIERS, March 5 (Reuters) — Algeria will complete the release this week, under an amnesty, of 2,629 Islamists jailed during civil strife that lasted more than a decade, the justice minister was quoted as saying Sunday. The minister, Tayeb Belaiz, told the government-controlled newspaper El Moudjahid that 150 former rebels walked free from prisons across the country, in a first batch of releases on Saturday as part of a drive for national reconciliation. The amnesty, approved by the government on Feb. 21, also gave Islamic guerrillas fighting the authorities six months to surrender and receive a pardon, provided they were not responsible for massacres, rapes and the bombings of public places. Officials estimate about 1,000 guerrillas are still active in Algeria, most of them members of the radical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The group is on the American list of foreign terrorist organizations and is believed to have links with Al Qaeda. Algeria plunged into brutal civil unrest early in 1992 after the military-backed authorities canceled a parliamentary election that Islamists were expected to win. The country continues to have sporadic riots to protest social problems, including an acute housing shortage and unemployment. Hundreds of people went on a rampage on Sunday, looting and burning a state bank outside Algiers and clashing with security forces after a youth had died in police custody, residents said. Several protesters and riot police officers were injured in the clashes, which followed the death of the young man at a police station in the coastal town of Zeralda, about 20 miles west of Algiers, they said. The violence during the period of Algeria's civil strife claimed about 150,000 lives. It also caused $20 billion in economic losses, as a result of a sabotage campaign by Islamic rebels. Thousands of Islamic guerrillas have given themselves up since a partial amnesty in January 2000. The last prisoner releases were in 1999. The new amnesty offers compensation for victims of the conflict and families of disappeared people, as well as aid for families of rebels killed in the fighting. It also provides compensation for people who lost their jobs because they were believed to be linked to militants. Under the pardon, the military will be protected from prosecution for any human rights abuses. Human rights groups and families say many of the thousands of people who disappeared were abducted by the security forces. Government officials have said that many of those who disappeared actually joined the guerrillas.