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Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Iraq amnesty scorned by US
Prisoners leave jail
The first releases came swiftly after the announcement
The United States has scorned the unprecedented Iraqi amnesty for all prisoners, which was announced unexpectedly earlier on Sunday.

Iraqi television showed pictures of joyful prisoners leaving jail, many of them chanting their loyalty to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

One Kurdish man released from the notorious Abu Gharib prison outside Baghdad after 13 years in jail told the BBC he had never imagined the day he would go free.

The amnesty included political prisoners, whose existence Iraq has previously denied.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was a typically manipulative gesture by a "brutal dictator".

"Do you really think, if these people are dangerous to the regime, that they're going to be allowed out and stay out? Or are they going to be back in jail in about three days' time?"

The UK Government said the move changed nothing.

Thanks for '100% support'

The amnesty was intended to thank the Iraqi people for their "unanimity" in last week's presidential referendum, the Iraqi government statement said.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein won 100% support in the poll, in which he was the only candidate.

A nationally televised statement from the Revolution Command Council, read by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, said the "full and complete and final amnesty" applied to "any Iraqi imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason".

[The 100% vote] is a unanimity that other nations are incapable of achieving and it is unparalleled, but it is a great truth

Iraqi Revolution Command Council statement
The amnesty also included "prisoners, detainees and fugitives... including those under sentence of death, inside or outside Iraq," the statement said.

The exception, the statement said, was for murderers, who would be released only with the consent of the victims' families.

'Pervasive repression'

The BBC's Caroline Hawley, reporting from Baghdad, says there is no way of verifying how many prisoners have been released.

Saddam Hussein at meeting of Revolutionary Command Council
It is Saddam's way of saying "thank you"
Human rights groups accuse Iraq of detaining tens of thousands of its citizens as political prisoners over the years, although many are thought to have been executed.

In April, the UN Human Rights Commission condemned Iraq for conducting a campaign of "all pervasive repression and widespread terror".

It demanded that Baghdad should immediately put an end to its "summary and arbitrary executions... the use of rape as a political tool and all enforced and involuntary disappearances".

Regime change

Analysts see the amnesty and referendum as a concerted effort by the Iraqi Government to rally domestic and international opposition to US demands for a change of regime in Baghdad.

Iraqi singer praising Saddam Hussein on Iraqi TV
The media has been rallying support for Saddam
In his UN speech on Iraq last month, US President George W Bush demanded that the leadership end internal oppression in Iraq, as well as stop its alleged programme to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Also this week, Iraq has taken steps to return Kuwait's national archive which was looted by Iraqi forces during the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

The first box of documents was handed over in the demilitarised border zone along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier under UN supervision on Sunday.

There is no indications whether any of the 600 Kuwaitis - missing since 1991 and alleged by Kuwait to be still being held in Iraq as prisoners of war - are among those released on Sunday.

Iraq says it has lost track of those prisoners.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"The only exceptions are murderers who have to be forgiven by the victims' families first"
Hazhir Teimourian, Middle East expert
"This time Saddam is really frightened"

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See also:

19 Apr 02 | Middle East
16 Oct 02 | Middle East
19 Oct 02 | Middle East
20 Oct 02 | Media reports
20 Oct 02 | Middle East
20 Oct 02 | Middle East
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