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Iraqi jails emptied

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World - Reuters

Iraqi Jails Virtually Emptied by Saddam Pardon
Mon Oct 21, 7:16 AM ET
By Nadim Ladki

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - For the first time in the 23- year rule of President Saddam Hussein (news - web sites), Iraqi jails were virtually empty Monday after the authorities released thousands of political prisoners and criminal inmates.

"The whole of Iraq is free from any prisoner or detainee," Iraq's state television reported in what was dubbed a "prison cleansing" measure.

Saddam ordered the immediate release of all political prisoners and most criminal inmates in an unprecedented amnesty Sunday. The surprise move was seen as an attempt to rally Iraqis behind his leadership against a possible U.S. attack.

The amnesty, following Saddam's 100 percent victory in an uncontested election last week, also covered those held for evading military service and Arab prisoners, including Kuwaitis.

But it was not clear whether Kuwaitis missing since the 1991 Gulf War (news - web sites) would be among those freed. Kuwait and the United Nations (news - web sites) demand Baghdad comply with Security Council resolutions requiring it to account for nearly 600 missing Kuwaitis, but Iraq says it does not know their fate.

Saddam's decree also excluded prisoners held or sentenced on charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Those held or convicted for murder would remain behind bars until relatives of victims pardoned them, it said.

There was no official figure on the number of prisoners involved in the amnesty.

The amnesty decree, carried by state media, was the first time the Iraqi authorities have acknowledged that some prisoners were held for political reasons. In the past they referred to political prisoners as traitors, saboteurs or agents.

"The president's deed is a courageous act that united the nation," an Iraqi man who gave his name as Abbas told Reuters.

Witnesses said the notorious Abu Gharib jail on Baghdad's outskirts, which held most of Iraq's political prisoners, was virtually empty after thousands of prisoners were released.

Among those freed was a senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric from the holy city of Karbala, they said.

Jails and detention centers in Baghdad were nearly empty.

The amnesty came amid efforts by key members of the U.N. Security Council to agree on a U.S. compromise resolution on arms inspections in Iraq. Washington had earlier sought a resolution authorizing force against Baghdad if it was judged to have impeded weapons inspections.

Washington accuses Saddam of developing weapons of mass destruction, a charge Iraq denies.

The amnesty was the first time Saddam has pardoned all political prisoners in his 23-year tenure, though he has freed small numbers of prisoners and cut jail terms of others.

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