Prime minister announces effort to ‘widen democratic space’ following anti-government protests
Ethiopia’s prime minister has announced that political prisoners will be released and a prison camp notorious for torture closed, acknowledging for the first time that the country holds such prisoners.
Rights groups and activists welcomed the surprise promise by Hailemariam Desalegn to “widen the democratic space for all”, saying it could herald the end of a repressive, violent era for the country.
“Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” Desalegn said at a press conference. “And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.”
The announcement comes after a wave of protests against the government that began in November 2015. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands jailed, Ethiopia’s human rights commission said in April.
Protesters in the Amhara and Oromia regions have complained that they are being politically and economically marginalised, and demonstrations have brought many businesses, universities and transport networks to a standstill.
The protests spread to other parts of the country, leading to a 10-month state of emergency that was lifted in August.
Desalegn said the move to release political prisoners was intended to “foster national reconciliation”, an about-turn from the government’s previous position that the rebellion was inspired by terrorism.
It is unclear how many prisoners will be released, under what conditions and when. It is also unclear how the authorities will define a political prisoner – and whether they will be released only from Maekelawi or from other detention centres across the country.
Befeqadu Hailu, a human rights advocate who was arrested in 2014 along with five other associates of the Zone 9 blogging collective, wrote in a blogpost: “I’m writing you this struggling with my tears. All these pledges need to be implemented immediately.”
In a journal entry from Maekelawi prison, he wrote of his interrogators: “They spend a great deal of time pretending that they already know the evils you’ve committed. If they cannot successfully extract information from you in this way, they force confessions by punching, beating, extended physical exercise and flogging.”
Torture and solitary confinement are commonly used in Maekelawi, where most political prisoners are sent, often before trial, according to Human Rights Watch’s Felix Horne.
“It’s become almost a symbol of repression inside the country and of the plight of political prisoners for speaking up,” he said, adding that he had not expected the prime minister’s announcement.
“Today’s announcement is quite significant. This could hopefully indicate a turning point on how the state deals with dissenting voices,” Horne said. “It’s very surprising. The government has zero tolerance for dissenting voices and has often used the anti-terrorism law to shut down legitimate expressions of political dissent.
“Ethiopians as a general rule don’t protest. Since 2015 they have been but they’ve paid the price – there’s been tens of thousands arrested, hundreds of people shot by security forces and killed. In the past two years Ethiopia’s gone from a very repressive but appearing stable state to one that’s teetering on the brink.”
Amnesty International said the government should make good on its promise straight away. “We are calling on the Ethiopian authorities to implement today’s decision as quickly as possible by immediately and unconditionally releasing them,” said its Ethiopia researcher, Fisseha Tekle. “The authorities should also repeal or substantially amend the repressive laws under which they were imprisoned, including the draconian anti-terrorism proclamation.
“While plans to close the notorious Maekelawi detention centre are welcome, the closure must not be used to whitewash the horrifying events that have taken place there. For years Maekelawi has essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent, including peaceful protesters, journalists and opposition figures.
“A new chapter for human rights will only be possible if all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment are effectively investigated, and those responsible brought to justice. We are also calling for investigations into dozens of enforced disappearances that have taken place since 1991 – it is not enough to release some peaceful dissenters while the fate of many others remains unknown.”