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Ethiopia to release all political prisoners, close notorious prison camp

Ashraf Shalzy, AFP | Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn speaks during a press conference in Khartoum on August 17, 2017.

In a surprise move, Ethiopia’s prime minister on Wednesday announced plans to drop charges against political prisoners and close a notorious prison camp in what he called an effort to “widen the democratic space for all.”

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Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn’s declaration comes in the wake of anti-government protests that have engulfed much of the restive Oromia and Amhara regions of Ethiopia in recent months, bringing many businesses, universities and transport networks to a standstill.

These sometimes deadly protests, the most serious since the current government came to power in 1991, then spread into other parts of the East African country, leading to a months-long state of emergency that has since been lifted.

“Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released,” Hailemariam said. “And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.”

It was not immediately clear how many political prisoners were being held across the country, which is a close US security ally.

“We have no official list of names of who will be released or when. People are hoping it will include dissidents and journalists. Amongst those who are currently in jail are Merera Gudinam and Bekele Gerba, the leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress. There are also many journalists in prison there,” said Nicolas Germain of France 24’s Africa desk.

“But we need to be somewhat careful with this announcement as the Minister of Government Communications Negeri Lencho then came out to say it will all take a long time and we need to see who might be eligible for release.”

Ethiopians were quick to respond, even with social media sites currently blocked.

“I’m writing you this struggling with my tears,” wrote renowned blogger and former detainee Befeqadu Hailu. “All these pledges need to be implemented immediately.”

Rights groups and opposition groups in Ethiopia had been calling for the release of political prisoners, saying they were arrested on trumped-up charges and were being punished for their points of view. Ethiopia’s government has long been accused of arresting critical journalists and opposition leaders.

Some of the prominent politicians currently in custody include opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Merara Gudina. A number of journalists also remain in detention.

The months of protests demanding wider freedoms began in late 2015 and led to hundreds of reported deaths and tens of thousands of arrests while disrupting one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. The protests also caused the displacement of an estimated 1 million people.

“The crackdown on the political opposition saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association,” rights group Amnesty International has said.

(with AP)

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