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Saturday, July 31, 1999 Published at 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK

World: Africa

Morocco frees prisoners

Moroccans hope the new king will tackle the country's social ills

Morocco has begun releasing thousands of prisoners from its jails, under an amnesty decreed by new King Mohamed VI.

The BBC's Nick Pelham in Rabat: "Thousands have been gathering at prison gates."
Some 7,988 inmates are being pardoned and released, and nearly 40,000 are having their sentences reduced, Justice Minister Omar Azzimane said.

According to Mr Azzimane, those to benefit from the royal amnesty include the sick, the handicapped, pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and the well-behaved.

Foreigners, of whom there are more than 700 in Morocco's prisons, many for drugs offences, and Islamists are also expected to benefit.

"We began setting free detainees following the royal amnesty," an official at the Sale prison near Rabat said, adding that 700 of the jail's inmates were affected.

Amnesties are a traditional way to mark a new reign in Morocco, but its size - it is the biggest in living memory - has taken analysts by surprise.

`Long live the king'

Relatives shouted with joy as convicts emerged from the prison to be hugged by their families and friends.

"Long live the king... God save His Majesty King Mohamed VI," the crowd shouted.

Witnesses said at least two bearded Muslim fundamentalists had left the prison this morning.

But it is not clear whether any members of the banned Islamic group, Adl Wal Ihsan - Justice and Spirituality - are among those released or pardoned.

Their leader, Sheikh Abdeslam Yassine, has been under house arrest for nine years.

[ image: King Mohamed making his first public appearance]
King Mohamed making his first public appearance
The releases come a day after King Mohamed gave his first address to the nation saying he was committed to constitutional monarchy, political pluralism and economic liberalism.

His succession has raised hopes in Morocco of a new commitment to tackling the country's social malaise.

He has a more humanitarian image than his father, Hassan II, who died a week ago, and the authorities are hoping 40 days of mourning will win them a breathing space.

But 12 million Moroccans live in poverty and in a recent interview Interior Minister Driss Basri said it was not inconceivable that Islamists could one day take power at the polls.

Under King Hassan, popular devotion for the king's religious office helped avert the type of political Islam which has openly challenged the authorities in neighbouring Algeria.

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