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Detainees wait for their release from Al Rusafa prison in Baghdad, yesterday.
BAGHDAD: Iraq’s government has released 335 prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws as a goodwill gesture to try to appease Sunni Muslim demonstrators who are staging protests against Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
Three weeks of demonstrations, mainly in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, have evolved into a tough challenge for the Shia premier, increasing worries that Iraq could slide back into the sectarian confrontation of its recent past. Officials said a ministerial committee had freed 335 detainees whose jail terms had ended or whose cases had been dismissed for lack of evidence. Sunni leaders say security forces use terrorism laws to unfairly target their sect.
Dozens of prisoners in yellow Iraqi correctional department uniforms waited surrounded by guards as women in traditional robes and old men tried to catch a glance of detainees to see whether relatives were among those released.
“In name of the Iraqi State, I apologise to those who were arrested and jailed and were later proven to be innocent,” said Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aal-Shahristani, a senior Iraqi Shia figure heading the committee. Detainee releases are just one demand from Sunni protesters. Many are also calling for Maliki to step down.
Thousands of protesters are still camped out in Anbar, once the home of Al Qaeda’s campaign against US troops in Iraq, where they have blocked a main road to Jordan and Syria near the Sunni heartland city of Ramadi.
“This is not enough. We didn’t ask for a gesture or a gift for the people. We want to give people their rights,” said Jaber Al Jaberi, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block.