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Algeria frees key member of banned Islamic party

Abassi Madani July 15, 1997
Web posted at: 3:33 p.m. EDT (1933 GMT)

ALGIERS, Algeria (CNN) -- A leading member of Algeria's banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abassi Madani, was released Tuesday on parole. He was less than halfway through a 12-year prison sentence for undermining state security.

Diplomats called the release a dramatic step but said it was unlikely to end violence in the North African country. Algeria has seen a rise in violence since it held multi-party general elections on June 5, and hundreds of people have been killed in attacks blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.

The outlawed FIS leadership in Europe described the move as "a positive act by President Liamine Zeroual and a contribution to the settlement of the crisis and to the return of peace."

The statement called for all political prisoners held by Algerian authorities to be freed, including FIS deputy leader Sheikh Ali Belhadj.

Madani, 66, was serving a 12-year jail term imposed in 1992 for threatening state security after a strike and riots preceded Algeria's multi-party general election planned for June 1991.

Madani charismatic, persuasive speaker

Madani is a charismatic figure who rose to prominence thanks to his ability to rally support for his cause. He is a persuasive speaker able to spin slogans that have earned him a large following in Algeria.

His goal through his career has been to overthrow the secular government he describes as "authoritarian" and to replace it with the first Islamist regime in North Africa.

In 1954, he was jailed after he attacked the Algiers radio station on the day Algeria's war of independence against France erupted. He remained imprisoned throughout the eight-year war.

Algeria has been rocked by bombings

He rose up the political ladder during riots in October 1988 against one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN), then took the top spot when the FIS was officially recognized one year later.

Madani's first electoral victory came in June 1990 during the first multi-party local elections. He subsequently positioned himself as the potential successor to then-president Chadli Bendjedid.

Madani's call for an "unlimited general strike" in May 1991 to force Bendjedid to call early elections turned quickly into a showdown with the authorities, with the army declaring a state of emergency on June 5, 1991, and arresting top Islamist leaders, including Madani.

Nonetheless, in December 1991 the FIS won the first round of national legislative elections. The military again stepped in, suspending the second round that was to have been held in January 1992. The FIS was outlawed in April 1992.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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