AMMAN// Jordan's King Abdullah II has pardoned more than one million criminal offenders to mark the 12th anniversary of his accession.
The pardon covers traffic violators and those who committed petty crimes, but also some detainees who took part in street protests demanding reforms.
Marouf al Bakhit, the prime minister, said yesterday that convicted terrorists, embezzlers and rapists were exempted, as were protesters involved in violent clashes who had injured government troops.
The move comes against a backdrop of four months of street protests in Jordan every Friday.
The protests have been mostly peaceful and the demonstrators have pressed for economic and political reforms.
As part of the pardon, Jordan will release about 3,500 prisoners as part of a programme to give inmates a second chance in life.
The amnesty excluded prisoners involved in terrorist acts, but 11 hardline militants had their sentences significantly slashed under a special amnesty, Mr Bakhit said.
Royal pardons are not uncommon in Jordan's history.
Yesterday's amnesty was the second since 1999, when King Abdullah assumed the throne and the 13th since 1950.
The first batch of 1,000 prisoners were scheduled to leave prisons yesterday.
Mr Bakhit said the amnesty paves the way for inmates to "start a new life" and will "provide them with an opportunity to become productive members in society".
"We hope that they will turn over a new leaf," he said. "Their release will help build bridges of confidence between the government and citizens."
Islamic militant Mohammad Shalabi, known as Abu Sayyaf, will be among those who will benefit from the special amnesty.
Abu Sayyaf was convicted for plotting to carry out terrorist attacks against US targets in the country, possessing explosives and inciting riots in Maan, a city that was the scene of violent clashes in 2002.
King Abdullah asked the government to adopt the draft law on May 25 as Jordan marked Independence Day.
Jordan's 14 prisons house 8,308 prisoners. On average, each prisoner costs the Public Security Department 425 Jordanian dinars (Dh2,200) a month.
Those convicted of thefts, traffic violations, slander, criminal offences, among others were included in the pardon.
But it excluded those convicted of espionage, treason, drugs dealers, bribery, misuse of public office and crimes related to the internal security of the state well as premeditated murder and rape.
In total, the prime minister said 1,184,000 Jordanians stand to benefit from the amnesty.
Among those will be 81 Jordanians from a youth movement who were charged with resisting police officers in the wake of violence that erupted last March as police attempted to break up their protest camp.
The pardon was seen as a political gesture to placate growing public tensions over the glacial pace of promised reforms and declining living standards. Inspired by the regional revolts, Jordanians have been calling for more political freedoms.
" Usama Bitar, a lawyer, said: "There is unprecedented public disgruntlement and the pardon is like a reconciliation between citizens and the government. At the same time, one of its drawbacks is that many criminals will leave prisons unpunished."
At the same time, some frowned upon the decision.
"We are not happy with the decision because justice needs to take its course," a judicial source said. "It takes years to arrest criminals."
Jordanian Islamists and trade union members have been calling for the release of Ahmad al Daqamseh, a Jordanian soldier who was sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting dead seven Israeli schoolgirls in the Jordanian town of Baqura in March 1997. But he was not included in the royal pardon.
In 1999, Abu Musaab Zarqawi, the former head of the al Qa'eda Branch in Mesopotamia, was released as part of the first royal pardon under King Abdullah.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press