TRIPOLI, Libya – The Libyan government released 88 repentant Islamic militants, some of them belonging to a group with suspected links to Al Qaeda, a government-funded human rights group announced Thursday.
The release included 45 members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has been accused of plotting to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and has been linked to Al Qaeda, but Libyan officials say the group has denied the connection.
The move is the latest effort by an Arab government to address militant movements through rehabilitation programs rather than solely through force. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both pioneered programs to "deprogram" militants and allow them to rejoin society.
Mohammed Kreir, 41, had served 12 years of his life sentence before his release Thursday. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s before joining the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
He took part in a three-year de-radicalization program in prison, which was overseen by the Human Rights Association, headed by Gadhafi's powerful son Seif al-Islam.
"Our aim had been to establish an Islamic state in Libya," he said after his release, dressed in a traditional blue Libyan robe and trousers. "After discussions for three years with Islamic thinkers in prison, I am now convinced I was wrong. All Libyans are Muslims."
Kreir said he and his fellow inmates renounced violence and are ready to rejoin society, adding that the human rights association has promised them jobs and help to find suitable housing.
Kreir said the prisoners received better treatment in jail once the program began, including access to satellite television and books and newspapers.
Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam has been leading a dialogue with militants and so far 100 have been released in the last year under the auspices of his organization.
"We have put our bets on dialogue instead of confrontation with these groups. We have succeeded," said Saleh Abdel-Salam, a prominent member of the association said.
The other 43 released belonged to other radical Islamic groups, including Islamic Jihad. They were released from the notorious Abu Salim prison in the capital.
Family members and children waited in the prison court yard to receive their released relatives. They hugged and kissed and some knelt on the floor giving thanks for the release. Women ululated in joy, while some broke in tears.
The association's statement called for the prison to be closed, and the remaining prisoners to be transferred to other facilities.
A prison official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said 130 members of the Libyan Fighting Group remain behind bars.
"Dialogue with them will continue until this case is closed," the official said.
Most of those in prison are serving between 10 years and life sentences after being detained in the mid-1990s.
The militant group was believed to have joined Al Qaeda's ranks, following a reference to them in an audio tape released on the Internet in 2007 by the terror network's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.