Ethiopia plans to release political prisoners in bid for national dialogue

Ethiopia plans to release political prisoners in bid for national dialogue

By Paul Schemm

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on March 17, 2016. (Michael Tewelde/AP)

(washingtonpost) —“It is a time defying institution which has been around for more than half a century and has been used (and abused) for the same purpose: to detain, without due legal process, people alleged to have committed grave crimes against the state, the people and the constitution,” said a 2016 editorial in the Addis Standard. The paper described the site as a state-run “torture chamber” unbefitting a government that describes itself as democratic.

 Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have alleged torture and other violations at Ethio­pian detention centers, and there was cautious optimism that the announcement might represent a shift.

“Time will tell whether this signals a turning point in the government’s tolerance of dissenting voices, but the release of political prisoners and closure of such an abusive detention facility is welcome news,” said Felix Horne, senior Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The government has been under extreme pressure since members of the Oromo community, the country’s largest ethnic group, launched protests in 2015 over what they called their marginalization and lack of political influence. The deaths of at least 1,000 people and attacks on foreign businesses prompted a 10-month state of emergency that ended in August.

The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about the violence and the government ­response.

New protests erupted last year at universities, and there were reports of security forces killing more people in parts of the country.

At the same time, clashes between the Oromo and neighboring Somali communities claimed hundreds of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.

 The government has been holding a dialogue with opposition parties. But most of the parties were seen by many as too close to the government, and some prominent politicians, including Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, were in jail.

Previously, government policy seemed aimed at tightening control rather than allowing more political voices, said Beyene Petros, chairman of the Medrek coalition of opposition parties.

“We have been pushing for this as a confidence-building measure that they should release prominent political prisoners. That has been our incessant call,” he said. “I’m not sure if they are now responding to this and so are going in a different direction.”

Read more: Despite outward calm, Ethi­o­pia extends state of emergency