Celebration filled the air as the 746 prisoners were released on February 14 from the maximum security Kality prison. Prisoners including Andualem Arage, Eskinder Nega and Abebe Kesto, were released after protests in Oromia and Amhara region rocked the country over the past two years.
Abebe told Capital that the people set them free. “It is the peaceful struggle that sets us free.”
Eskinder also said that the struggle for freedom will continue. “I will start the peaceful struggle now not tomorrow,” he told Capital.
Andualem also said that he is happy that he is free. “The struggle must continue. Better things should come for all of us and a bright sunshine of democracy must shine in Ethiopia,” he said.
Their relatives and supporters surrounded the main prison gate in the afternoon cheering them as they walked free.
On February 13, Oromo Federalist Congress members including Bekele Gerba, Gurmesa Ayano, Adisu Bullala and Dejene Tafa were also released in hopes of reconciliation.
Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was arrested in December 2015 after mass protests broke out in the Oromia region over accusations that farmers were being forced to sell land with scant compensation.
He was held initially on terrorism charges, later reduced to incitement to violence.
Outside Ethiopia, the international community reacted in a positive yet cautious manner. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn via phone on Monday, February 12. Her office stated that the chancellor welcomed the fact that Ethiopia had released a large number of political prisoners since the start of the year and encouraged the premier to take further steps in opening the country democratically.
The EU reacted similarly. “The release of thousands of prisoners in the past couple of weeks, including the journalist Eskinder Nega and the leader of the opposition Andualem Arage is a step in the right direction. It’s particularly important in view of this year’s local elections,” an EU spokesperson told. “We believe that the grievances expressed by the political protesters should be addressed through an inclusive dialogue with the opposition and all the components of civil society.”
The rights group Amnesty International which had been campaigning for the release of the prisoners appealed to the government to change its method of dealing with political critics. “We hope the release of this courageous journalist [Eskinder Nega], along with hundreds of other prisoners, heralds a new dawn in the Ethiopian government’s handling of political dissent, a dawn of tolerance and respect for human rights,” said Amnesty’s deputy regional director Sarah Jackson in a statement.
“The authorities must also take steps to reform the legal system under which arbitrary detentions and torture of dissidents have been allowed to flourish.” A good way to start, Jackson said, would be by reforming the country’s anti-terrorism law. “If the Ethiopian government is serious about turning over a new leaf, it must order an impartial and independent investigation into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners,” she stated.
In addition to the prisoner release, state prosecutors also dropped charges against several government critics. Bloggers Befekadu Haile and Natnael Feleke of the website Zone 9 were arrested four years ago and accused of inciting violence through their work.
Major protests over the issue of land initially broke out in 2015. Oromia, the country’s largest province, surrounds the capital Addis Ababa and the government had proposed expanding the city’s development boundaries into Oromia. In October 2016 the government declared a state of emergency. This gave the government the power to detain people and restrict the right to free speech or to gather publicly, as well as, the right to deploy the army.
(Compiled from agencies)