The government of Ethiopia says it will consider pardoning or dropping charges against some members of opposition political parties accused of crimes.
Initial news reports stated that Ethiopia will release all political prisoners, but that was based on an inaccurate translation of the prime minister’s comments during a news conference Wednesday.
The government had never before acknowledged that it detains political prisoners, and the possibility of a sweeping pardon drew reactions from activists, human rights groups and other governments.
In a written statement, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, said, “Ethiopia has finally acknowledged that it holds political prisoners. Now, the government should quickly follow through on its commitments to release them.”
The Ethiopian government has promised far less, however.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, said in Amharic that the government would review the cases of certain individuals affiliated with political parties, including party leaders, who have been charged with crimes. He also said that, in some cases, charges would be dropped or people would be released or pardoned, depending on investigation results.
What wasn’t mentioned during the televised press conference was “political prisoners,” “all political prisoners” or immediate pardons without review.
Hailemariam said the notorious Maekelawi Prison will be closed and turned into a museum, although the prime minister did not give a timetable for the closure at the same news conference.
The state-owned Fana Broadcasting Network said the government is closing the prison, located in the heart of Addis Ababa, because it was where Ethiopia’s former Derg regime committed atrocities “under the guise of investigation.”
The government did not acknowledge that it currently treats prisoners inhumanely at the detention center, despite accusations by exiled dissidents and former prisoners. Human Rights Watch says the current government interrogates and tortures political prisoners at the facility.
Both HRW and Amnesty International welcomed the announced closure of the prison as an important first step. But both groups emphasized that those behind the alleged torture in Maekelawi Prison must be investigated and held to account.
In an email reaction shortly after the announcement, HRW’s senior researcher for the Horn of Africa, Felix Horne, said, “Ensuring independent and impartial investigations and prosecutions is critical to send a strong and clear message to security officials across the country that torture is no longer permissible and will be punished.”
Activists have long accused the government and the ruling EPRDF coalition of using arrests, torture and imprisonment to suppress political dissent. The party has ruled Ethiopia since overthrowing the Marxist Derg regime in 1991.