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Ethiopian Blogger Eskinder Nega Among Released Prisoners


FILE - Ethiopian columnist Eskinder Nega was serving 18 years in prison after being charged as a dangerous individual bent on violent revolution. (Eskinder Nega / CPJ photo illustration)

The Ethiopian government has released blogger Eskinder Nega and several prominent opposition figures from prison, as part of efforts to ease political tensions in the Horn of Africa nation.

The government said it freed a total of 746 prisoners on Wednesday, in line with a promise made by the country's attorney general last week.

Those released include the former deputy chairman of the opposition Unity for Democracy party, Andualem Arage, and top opposition figures Kenfe-Mikail Debebe, Mamushet Amare, Wubshet Taye and Olabana Lelisa. Lelisa had been in jail for more than a decade.

The government also freed four members of the Ethiopian Muslim Arbitration Committee: Ahemedin Jebel, Ahemed Mustafa , Mohammed Abate and Kalid Ibrahim.

Nega, a journalist who has been highly critical of the government, had been serving an 18-year prison sentence.

The high-profile prisoners had been slated to be freed last week, but the release was held up when they refused to sign a letter of pardon that states they were members of Ginbot 7, a pro-democracy political organization the Ethiopian government has labeled a terrorist group.

All were released without signing the document.

Ethiopia's attorney general recently promised the government would release suspects and prisoners in three phases. This second phase of release includes those arrested during the last two years on charges of terrorism and inciting violence, and those convicted of religious extremism.

Rights groups say the arrests were, in fact, aimed at silencing opponents and critics of the government.

Thousands were arrested during a wave of anti-government protests that began in the southern Oromia region and swept across the country in 2015 and 2016.

Opposition leaders say the ruling EPRDF party has lost the trust of the people.

"Releasing prisoners alone cannot address public demands and solve the crisis in the country," Blue Party chairman Yeshiwas Asefa told VOA's Horn of Africa Service Wednesday.

Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), waves to his supporters during the celebration after his release from prison in Adama town of Oromia region, Ethiopia Feb. 13, 2018.
Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), waves to his supporters during the celebration after his release from prison in Adama town of Oromia region, Ethiopia Feb. 13, 2018.

On Tuesday, six members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFCO), including deputy chairman Bekele Gerba, were released. Bekele called for the further release of prisoners who have been arrested for politically-motivated reasons.

"Those of us known to the media are getting attention but thousands more unknown Ethiopians remain behind bars," he told VOA.

He said he expects the government to keep its promise to free all such prisoners in two months.If not, he added, the fight against the government will continue.

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