Ethiopia Says It Will Free Political Prisoners, Close Notorious Prison
By Ruth McLean and agencies, The Guardian
January 4, 2018

NAIROBI, Kenya — The prime minister of Ethiopia on Wednesday announced that the government would close a notorious detention center and release some prisoners across the country, including some members of political parties.

The announcement was hailed by human rights groups as an amnesty for the country’s political prisoners, who are estimated to number in the thousands, even though Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, did not explicitly mention political prisoners in his address.

Some wondered exactly whom the prime minister intended to release.

“It was absolutely not clear what the prime minister was saying,” said Yacob Hailemariam, a lawyer in Addis Ababa, the capital. “The whole thing is filled with vague statements and vague promises. He was very equivocal, and we will have to wait to see what he really meant.”

The government of Ethiopia — Africa’s second most populous country and an important United States ally in the fight against terrorism — has never acknowledged that it holds political prisoners, which would violate the country’s Constitution.

But democracy activists, political opponents, protesters and others who appear to challenge the government are often imprisoned under the country’s antiterrorism law or on charges of seeking to overthrow the Constitution, said Mr. Hailemariam, a former senior prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Wednesday’s announcement is nevertheless significant, in part for its promise to close Maekelawi prison, a detention center in Addis Ababa.

“That’s very symbolic — whenever you think of torture, you think of Maekelawi,” said Soleyana Gebremichael, the director of the Ethiopia Human Rights Project in Washington. “It might not mean torture is not going to happen in Ethiopia anymore, but it by itself is symbolic.”

Ms. Gebremichael was a founding member of the Zone 9 blogging group, whose members were charged with terrorism in 2014 for writing that focused on democracy and human rights issues.

Analysts say the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is facing its most severe challenges since taking power in 1991.

The four-party coalition has long been dominated by a political party of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which also controls the military and intelligence branches of the government. That control began to fray in 2015, when protests erupted in the Oromia region, which includes the capital.

Members of the Oromo ethnic group make up a third of Ethiopia’s population, and street protesters demanded reforms like more equitable economic development and greater political participation.

 


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