17 January 2018

Ethiopia: Freedom for Ethiopian Opposition Leader

Photo: Ethiopia Human Rights Project
Merera Gudina has been released from prison.

The chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Merera Gudina, was released on Wednesday morning. He was arrested a year ago under the country's state of emergency after he returned from Europe.

In his first reported comments after his release, Merera urged the government to hold "honest negotiations" with political organizations to consolidate a national consensus.

Merera is the first political prisoner to be released since Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's surprise announcement earlier this month that the government planned to release imprisoned politicians and close the notorious Maekelawi prison camp.

The release of Merera had been a key demand of protesters from the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromos.

In 2015, the Oromos took to the streets over a proposed expansion of the capital city, Addis Ababa. They feared that this would deprive them of their land.

Big turnout to welcome Merera

Merera was released along with 115 others from a federal prison on the outskirts of the capital. He was later met by thousands of youths in his home town of Burayu, with some chanting anti-government slogans.

Another 361 detainees were also freed on Wednesday across southern Ethiopia, and several hundred more across the country are expected to be released in the coming months.

The move has been welcomed by many Ethiopians. Mulatu Gemechu, deputy chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) told DW that he was happy with the government's decision. However he wants to see more OFC members released. "These people didn't steal, they didn't do any crime, it's because they are against the government," Gemenchu said.

Calls for more releases

Betru Dibaba, a lawyer and legal expert in Ethiopia, also thinks that more prisoners should be released. In an interview with DW, he said some of the political prisoners had been jailed for defending the response of the general public to the expansion plans.

"All political prisoners should be released unconditionally. Releasing few prisoners while keeping many of them in prison will render the justice system inconsistent," he said.

Merera Gudina's lawyer, Wondimu Ebissa, described the government's action as "very nice" but said it didn't solve the problem.

Amnesty International also issued a statement. "While by all means a welcome step, the release today of Merera Gudina and other detainees must not be the last. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience continue to languish in jail, accused or prosecuted for the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression or simply for standing up for human rights," Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's Research and Advocacy Director for Africa, said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on the Ethiopian government to add three imprisoned journalists to the list of those to be freed.

"I think that it is essential for these journalists to be released, because the prime minister had announced that they would release a limited number of political prisoners since he wants to start national reconciliation and to open the democratic debate," RSF's Melisande Massoubre told DW.

Demonstrations continue

On Monday, Attorney General Getachew Ambaye told journalists that 528 people had so far been selected for clemency.

Getachew said the criteria for their selection involved taking into account proof that the suspects did not take part in actions that led to killings and severe injury, damaging infrastructure, and "conspiracy to dismantle the constitutional order by force."

The announcement by the prime minister on the release of prisoners came after recent anti-government protests.

The demonstrations demanding wider freedoms began in late 2015 and engulfed much of the restive Oromia and Amhara regions before spreading into other parts of the country, leading to a months-long state of emergency that has since been lifted.

However, demonstrations still occasionally occur in Oromia, the Oromo federal state.

Merera was taken into custody in 2016 shortly after returning from Europe where he spoke out at the European Parliament in Brussels about the state of emergency.

The government said he had violated the conditions of the state of emergency and charged him with a range of offences including inciting riots and plotting a coup.

Ethiopia is often accused by rights groups of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and media freedoms.

Reuters, AFP

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