Ethiopia will have to do a lot more than release political prisoners to end repression

Paving a new way.
Paving a new way.
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
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The Maekelawi detention center in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, has a reputation as a site for the detention, investigation, and abuse of protesters and opposition politicians. For three months in 2014, it was blogger and human rights activist Atnaf Berhane’s home. Charged with terrorism for his critical writing and reporting on the government, Berhane says he was kept in a dark cell with no sunlight and questioned up to eight hours a day.

In an unexpected move on Wednesday (Jan. 3), Ethiopia’s government announced that it would close Maekelawi, release its political prisoners, including those awaiting trial, and turn the controversial facility into a museum. In a press conference, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the move was aimed at creating national consensus, opening up political dialogue, and widening the democratic space. “Politicians currently under prosecution and those previously sentenced will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” Desalegn said.

Berhane, who was at home when the news first broke, was astonished by the decision. “I didn’t expect that the ruling party would admit that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia,” said the 28-year-old, who is out on bail while defending his case.

The announcement follows weeks of meetings between the four political parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has governed Africa’s second most populous country since 1991. The decision is a peace offering, observers say, meant to appease growing internal discord that has threatened to bring the country to the brink of collapse.

Ethiopia has struggled to deal with ongoing protests by the country’s two largest communities, the Oromo and Amhara, who are calling for an end to decades of systemic exclusion. (The government is primarily controlled by the minority Tigray community.) The government has reacted to these protests with force, drawing sharp criticism from Ethiopia’s allies in the West. The unrest has jeopardized the country’s booming economy and its place as an important center for global apparel sourcing.

Hassen Hussein, a Horn of Africa analyst and assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, says the recent concessions constitute the most significant change in Ethiopia in the last three years. “It is a step towards more openness,” Hassen said. “The devil would still be in the details and reversals are possible. So the next two to three weeks will be the most crucial to watch.”

A demonstrator chants slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during celebrations for Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 1, 2017.
A demonstrator chants slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture.
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Questions still loom over the plan, such as who qualifies as a political prisoner, how many will be released and under which preconditions, and when Maekelawi will be closed.

Mohammed Ademo, the editor of the OPride, a website that reports on the Oromo diaspora and advocates for social justice in Ethiopia, wants the government to urgently release more details about Maekelawi, including “the fate of dozens of people, mostly Oromo leaders, who disappeared without a trace and are allegedly being held in secret prisons since 1991. Their families need closure,” Ademo said. Only by acknowledging the true extent of the ill-treatment at Ethiopian prisons, military camps, and police stations can “a true healing and national reconciliation commence.”

Human rights organizations believe the prisoner release will only be meaningful if followed by serious political and human rights reforms. These include opening up space for free speech and political protests, distributing power within the security sector, and reforming electoral laws to allow for robust participation.

They’d also like the government to curb its surveillance of critics and lift its restrictions on the media and the internet. Five journalists are currently imprisoned in the country, according to Courtney Radsch, an advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Radsch hopes the journalists will be released along with the political prisoners and the charges against them dropped.

Berhane is hopeful that prisoners like journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition party leader Andualem Aragie, who were sentenced several years ago to 18 years and life respectively, will be part of the release. The idea is “so exciting,” Berhane said. “It puts me in tears.”