Ethiopia releases opposition leader Merera Gudina from jail

Hundreds of prisoners freed as government tries to quell anti-regime protests

Opposition leader Merara Gudina (centre) walks with his supporters after his release in Burayu, Ethiopia on Wednesday. Photograph: Elias Meseret/AP

Opposition leader Merara Gudina (centre) walks with his supporters after his release in Burayu, Ethiopia on Wednesday. Photograph: Elias Meseret/AP

 

Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina was among hundreds of prisoners released from jail on Wednesday as the first step in a government campaign to quell more than two years of anti-regime protests.

Getachew Ambaye, the attorney general, said the government would initially drop charges against 527 people, including some politicians, “for the benefit of the people and the government”, according to local media.

Detainees not accused of murder, injuring people, damaging government property, or actions seeking to undermine the constitution were eligible for release, Mr Getachew said. He indicated that hundreds more prisoners would probably be released in the next two months as a government task force reviewed more cases.

The government denies any of the detainees are political prisoners, a claim rejected by foreign diplomats and rights activists.

Mr Merera, the chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, was detained in December 2016. He was arrested in Addis Ababa shortly after criticising the government’s reaction to more than a year of protests during an event at the European Parliament in Brussels. He was later charged with various terrorist and criminal acts but pleaded not guilty to all offences.

Authorities alleged Mr Merera’s actions in Brussels violated the terms of the state of emergency imposed in October 2016.

Mr Merera, quoted by state-affiliated media as he left the Kilinto prison, said: “It will be good if the government conducts honest negotiations with political forces that have massive support so as to create a democratic Ethiopia that accommodates all equally.”

Broader movement

The unrest began in Oromia in November 2015 in opposition to government plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into the federal state but soon morphed into a broader anti-government movement and spread into Amhara state in the north of the country.

Demonstrators protested against the lack of democracy, with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front controlling all the seats in parliament, perceived economic and social marginalisation by the dominant Tigrayan elite and suppression of human rights and media freedom.

Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, recording average growth of 8 per cent every year over the past decade. It is trying to position itself as the next big global centre of low-cost manufacturing, especially for the garment industry.

With a population of 100m, the country is attractive to foreign investors but the government admits it is struggling to provide enough jobs for its increasingly well-educated younger generation.

Mr Merera’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Positive’

Fisseha Tekle, an Ethiopia researcher for Amnesty International, the rights group, said the release was “positive”. “But international human rights standards have not yet been met,” he said. “All prisoners of conscience have to be immediately and unconditionally released. And they have to be able to speak out.”

Analysts and activists say there could be up to tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia. Many were detained during the state of emergency, which ended last August, but most were released after a few weeks behind bars.

The US embassy in Ethiopia said in a statement on Wednesday it was “encouraged by the Ethiopian government’s decision to drop charges and pardon detainees, including political leaders, as a tangible step towards its stated goal of widening political space for all Ethiopians”.

It added it was “ready to work with all Ethiopians who share the goal of ensuring that all citizens are empowered to build a brighter future for their country”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018