By Tom Perry
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi has freed a group of Islamists jailed for militancy during Hosni Mubarak's era a step seen as a gesture to hardliners who supported his presidential bid.
A lawyer for 17 Islamists, many of them held since the 1990s, say they owe their release to a pardon issued by Mursi. At least three of the released Islamists had been condemned to death, said the lawyer Ibrahim Ali.
Those released in recent days include members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, jailed during the group's armed insurrection against the state in the 1990s, and Islamic Jihad, the movement behind the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
The pardon underlines efforts by Egypt's first Islamist president to satisfy the some of the hardliners he courted with election promises to implement Islamic law.
Mursi is facing calls from Islamists to secure the release of the remaining few dozen of their brethren who they believe are being kept behind bars by security forces resistant to the new president's wishes.
But he is also facing criticism from activists who are questioning his priorities, believing he has not moved far or fast enough to secure proper justice for thousands of others jailed by military courts since Mubarak was deposed, although he launched an investigation that did result in some releases.
"Mursi is paying off a political debt," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst, referring to a move he said would anger Egyptians who recall the bloodshed of the 1980s and 1990s.
"This carries a message: that even those who were condemned to death can be released," Abdel Fattah said. The presidential spokesman could not be reached for comment, but a security source said the men had been released on Mursi's orders.
Mursi has not spoken in public about the pardon for which he has been publicly thanked by al-Gama'a al-Islamiya. The group says those held in jail are innocent victims of summary justice in military and other courts where they were denied fair trials.
Islamist lawyers say some 2,000 Islamists have been released in the 18 months since Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, many of them last year on the orders of the council of military generals that steered the transition.
MEN ACCUSED IN KILLING OF POLICE
They have included high-profile figures such as Abboud al-Zumar, known as the man who supplied the bullets for the Sadat killing. Mohamed al-Zawahri, brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, also walked free earlier this year after a retrial cleared him of charges for which he had spent a decade in jail.
Ali, the lawyer, said the 17 men released in the last few days include two members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya accused of killing a police officer a third accused of killing another police officer in a separate incident. He said the men had not been involved.
More than 1,000 people were killed between 1992 and 1997 in al-Gama'a al-Islamiya's campaign against the state.
The violence culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre carried out by a group of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya members who ignored a ceasefire declared by the group's leaders. They killed 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, at a pharaonic temple. In 2003, the group published books renouncing violence.
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya has moved into the political mainstream since Mubarak was removed from power, setting up a political party, winning seats in parliamentary elections and later campaigning on Mursi's behalf in the presidential vote.
Mursi had promised to work for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the group's spiritual leader who is serving a life sentence in the United States for planning attacks in New York.
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya has called on Mursi to release the last few dozen Islamists still being held from the Mubarak era.
According to lawyers working for their release, Mursi had sought to secure freedom for all the Islamists still being held, but the security forces had blocked the move, signaling the resistance he is facing from unreformed security agencies.
"Those remaining must be released," said Tareq al-Zumar, a senior member of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Michael Roddy)