Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn dropped a veritable bombshell last week, when he announced that political prisoners would be released and that a detention centre in the capital that had become notorious for torture would be closed.
What made this all the more surprising was that the government had never before even acknowledged the existence of political prisoners (when dissidents are jailed in Ethiopia, anti-terrorism legislation is generally used). Hailemariam cited a desire to “widen the democratic space for all” and “foster national reconciliation”.
The past couple of years have seen waves of anti-government protests over perceived marginalisation, notably in the Amhara and Oromia regions. In April 2017, the state-affiliated Human Rights Commission said 669 people had died in the unrest, during which thousands of people were detained. In September, the unrest evolved into intercommunal violence in the Oromia and Somali regions, leading to the displacement of more than 200,000 people.
Amnesty International gave a cautious welcome to Hailemariam’s announcement, saying it “could signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia” and that it should be implemented “as quickly as possible”. But if Ethiopia is really to turn a page it must also, Amnesty said, “repeal or substantially amend the repressive laws” under which the prisoners are detained, and investigate all allegations of torture while bringing those responsible to justice.
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The prime minister left some key questions unanswered regarding those set for release: who, when, and how many. Following widespread media reports that Hailemariam had announced that “all” political prisoners would be released, one of his aides quickly clarified that the prime minister had been mistranslated and that the measure would only see “some” people pardoned or the criminal cases against them “interrupted”.