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Ethiopia to Release Political Prisoners, Close Detention Center

FILE - Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is seen in his office in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 17, 2016.
FILE - Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is seen in his office in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 17, 2016.

Ethiopia's prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, announced Wednesday the release of political prisoners and the closure of a notorious detention center in what he called an effort to "widen the democratic space for all."

Ethiopia has been accused of human rights abuses, including using mass arrests to stifle opposition and torturing prisoners in Maekelawi, a detention center in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

In a surprising move by the government, Hailemariam told a press conference that charges will be dropped for political prisoners — previously referred to only as criminals — awaiting trial.

"Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released,'' Hailemariam said. "And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.''

It was not immediately clear how many prisoners were being held in the center, on which Human Rights Watch released a report in 2013, alleging that "illegal interrogation methods" were being used against prisoners.

A 'scar on Ethiopia's history'

Getachew Shiferaw, who was charged under the criminal code for "inciting violence" in a private Facebook conversation, told VOA it was a "good thing" that the government was acknowledging the detention of political prisoners, and that they would be shutting down Maekelawi.

"Three different regimes have used the facility and many citizens have paid sacrifices and have lived through hardship in the detention center. I am saying this because I have seen people paying the price," Getachew said.

But Getachew and others are skeptical of how many prisoners will be pardoned, and whether human rights abuses will continue in other prisons in the country.

"When the government says they are going to release all political prisoners, the question now is who from the government list prisoners are going to be considered as political prisoners," said Befekadu Hailu, who is part of a group known as the Zone 9 bloggers who were acquitted last year of charges of inciting violence under Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law.

"They haven't listed who is considered as a political prisoner. Therefore, if it doesn't include everyone this is a temporary solution just to placate and fool people," he told VOA.

The shutting down of Maekelawi, a notorious facility in operation since the brutal Derg regime of the 1970s and '80s, was widely welcomed, though some argued that simply closing the center was not enough.

"Maekelawi, to be honest, has divided a generation. It is a place where generations have been lost. It has left a scar in Ethiopia's history. It should've never remained open operating as a detention center until today," Seyoum Teshome, university lecturer at Ambo University in the town of Wolisso, told VOA.

He added that prisoners deserve "moral and financial compensation" and apologies for "inhumane treatment committed."

It's a 'first step,' say rights groups

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused the Ethiopian government of using mass arbitrary arrests, torture, and unfair trials against political opposition.

"The Ethiopian government's decision to close Maekelawi detention center and release political prisoners is an important first step but much more remains to be done," said Felix Horne, senior researcher in Ethiopia and Eritrea for Human Rights Watch, in an email to VOA. "The government needs to investigate years of alleged torture of Maekelawi's detainees and hold those responsible to account."

Amnesty International's Feseha Tekle said "those who were committing crimes in these prisons [must] be held to account but the measure to close the prison is welcome and is seen as the first step."

Hailemariam's announcement follows numerous anti-government protests over the past two years in Ethiopia's Oromia and Amhara regions. The protests spread nationwide, prompting a months-long state of emergency that has since been lifted.