World News

Ethiopia Says It Will Close Notorious Prison and Release Some Prisoners

Posted January 3, 2018 5:41 p.m. EST

NAIROBI, Kenya — The prime minister of Ethiopia announced Wednesday that the government would close a notorious detention center and release some prisoners across the country, including some members of political parties.

The announcement was hailed by human rights groups as an amnesty for the country’s political prisoners, who are estimated to number in the thousands, even though Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, did not explicitly mention political prisoners in his address.

Some wondered exactly whom the prime minister intended to release

“It was absolutely not clear what the prime minister was saying,” said Yacob Hailemariam, a lawyer in Addis Ababa, the capital. “The whole thing is filled with vague statements and vague promises. He was very equivocal, and we will have to wait to see what he really meant.”

The government of Ethiopia — Africa’s second most populous country and an important U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism — has never acknowledged that it holds political prisoners, which would violate the country’s constitution.

But democracy activists, political opponents, protesters and others who appear to challenge the government are often imprisoned under the country’s anti-terrorism law or on charges of seeking to overthrow the constitution, said Hailemariam, a former senior prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Wednesday’s announcement is nevertheless significant, in part for its promise to close Maekelawi prison, a detention center in Addis Ababa.

“That’s very symbolic — whenever you think of torture, you think of Maekelawi,” said Soleyana Gebremichael, the director of the Ethiopia Human Rights Project in Washington. “It might not mean torture is not going to happen in Ethiopia anymore, but it by itself is symbolic.”

Gebremichael was a founding member of the Zone 9 blogging group, whose members were charged with terrorism in 2014 for writing that focused on democracy and human rights issues.

Analysts say the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is facing its most severe challenges since taking power in 1991.

The four-party coalition has long been dominated by a political party of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which also controls the military and intelligence branches of the government. That control began to fray in 2015, when protests erupted in the Oromia region, which includes Addis Ababa.

Members of the Oromo ethnic group make up a third of Ethiopia’s population, and street protesters demanded reforms like more equitable economic development and greater political participation.

After the protests spread to the Amhara region in 2016, the government declared a state of emergency, which remained in place until last September. The state-based Human Rights Commission said in April that 669 people had died during the protests, which are still continuing.

“Those protests are still going on; they didn’t stop,” said Hallelujah Wondimu, formerly an Ethiopia analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Just this week, there were about five or six protests in Oromia.”

In one clash in December, at least 61 people were killed.

Two years of protests appears to have shown the governing coalition’s strongest member that it risks losing its grip on power — even though the party holds, together with smaller allies, all 546 seats in the country’s parliament.

Two of the coalition’s marginalized members, which represent the regions where the protests began, have joined forces to “coordinate their struggle against dictatorship,” said Hailemariam, the lawyer.

The potential release of political prisoners, many of whom come from those regions, would be a major symbolic concession to the opposition forces inside the coalition, which is scheduled to hold its congress in March.

Girma Seifu, who until 2015 served as the only opposition member of parliament, said the prime minister’s announcement might be an early — and unexpected — sign of political reform.

“I’m really surprised,” he said. “I want to see if it will be a reality.”

Even if the release of all of the country’s political prisoners does not come to pass, the announcement may hint at a new path forward for the coalition, said Wondimu, the analyst.

“The status quo is no more, in a way,” he said. “This is not a groundbreaking, major departure, but it’s a big move that shows the shifting power relations” within the governing coalition.

Seifu said the government might have come to the conclusion that “if they want to persist with a single party in politics, this will become very dangerous.” The government, he said, wants to open up more political space in Oromia, where the protests began, to ease some of the tension.

“And if they do that,” he said, “it will be difficult to keep other spaces closed.”