Algeria frees 76 including war veteran, govt critics

Many protesters were arrested ahead of an unpopular presidential election in December. (AP pic)

ALGIERS: Algeria released on Thursday 76 prominent anti-government protest figures from detention, including well-known independence war veteran Lakhdar Bouregaa, state television and a lawyer said.

Bouregaa was freed from an Algiers prison after six months in detention, an AFP photographer said.

“His trial, which was due to start this morning, has been postponed and the judge has decided to release him,” his lawyer Abdelghani Badi said.

State television said 75 members of the “Hirak” anti-government protest movement were also freed – over half of the 140 who had been detained by the authorities, either convicted or awaiting judgement.

Bouregaa, 86, was arrested in June at his home in Algiers for “insulting a state body” and “taking part in a scheme to demoralise the army with the aim of harming the nation’s defence”.

His supporters attributed his detention to his criticism of army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who became Algeria’s de facto strongman after the fall of long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last April. Gaid Salah died of a heart attack in December.

Badi said that Bouregaa, who underwent emergency surgery for a hernia during his detention in November, would remain free during his trial, postponed until Mar 12.

Bouregaa was a commander of the National Liberation Army – which fought French colonial rule – and a founder in 1963 of the Front for Socialist Forces, one of Algeria’s oldest opposition parties.

Before his arrest, he took part in the demonstrations that have rocked Algeria since last February – initially against Bouteflika, and then the wider establishment, after the president was forced to resign.

Bouregaa’s arrest provoked outrage, notably from supporters of the “Hirak”, who branded him a “prisoner of conscience” and demanded his release.

Among other detainees freed on bail Thursday was retired general Hocine Benhadid.

The 73-year-old was accused of “demoralising the army” after criticising Gaid Salah.

Mohamed Tadjadit, an activist nicknamed the “Hirak poet” was also among those released, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners, a support group.

Abdelhamid Amine, who was sentenced to three months imprisonment for his anti-government cartoons under the pen name “Nime”, was released after serving one month, according to the support group.

Many protesters were arrested ahead of an unpopular presidential election in December, many for waving Berber flags at protests or making critical comments online.

Some were acquitted, often after months of pre-trial detention while 30 were convicted of “attacking the integrity of the territory” and released after serving six month sentences.

After a vote marred by low turnout, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, an ex-premier under Bouteflika, was sworn in as Algeria’s new president on Dec 19.