FILE - Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses national and regional issues after the recent regional coup attempt at the parliament in Addis Ababa, July 1, 2019.
FILE - Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the parliament in Addis Ababa, July 1, 2019. Ahmed's government has dropped charges against Israeli businessman Menashe Levy, who had been in prison since 2015. Levy has since been released.

Ethiopia has released Israeli businessman Menashe Levy from prison, according to a former staffer for U.S. Representative Chris Smith, who led a congressional delegation last August that pushed the Ethiopian government to drop charges against Levy.

The news was first reported Thursday by The Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli newspaper.

Levy was arrested in 2015 for financial crimes. He had been working in Ethiopia for about seven years before his arrest, managing the local branch of a major Israeli mining company.

Ethiopian authorities charged Levy with bribery, tax evasion and money laundering on financial dealings between 2010 and 2012 that involved millions of dollars, the Addis Fortune, an independent news organization in Ethiopia, reported shortly after Levy's arrest.

Now in his mid-fifties, Levy denied the charges against him, but he was sentenced without a trial. During his four-year imprisonment, he was violently beaten by another inmate and suffered a heart attack. 

FILE - U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks at a hearing in Washington, April 22, 2015.
FILE - U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks at a hearing in Washington, April 22, 2015.

He did not receive proper medical treatment and was denied due process, according to information provided by the office of Smith, a Republican from New Jersey.

Ongoing pressure

Levy’s release comes nearly a year after Smith’s delegation traveled to Addis Ababa, the capital, to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other top officials.

Smith has pushed for reforms in Ethiopia since the mid-1990s and, last year, sponsored a U.S. House resolution outlining desired changes. His 2018 trip was designed, in part, to spur the release of Levy, along with other political prisoners. 

“If somebody commits violence, that's one thing,” Smith told VOA. “But when somebody is agitating for reform, is peacefully picketing, that person should not be rounded up and thrown into a hell hole.”

Although Smith's visit did not lead to a breakthrough in Levy’s case, efforts to secure his release had been ongoing, The Jerusalem Post reported.

American attorney Alan Dershowitz met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, according to the newspaper. That led to conversations between Netanyahu and Prime Minister Abiy in June.

The government dropped criminal charges against Levy soon after, and released him June 22.

Prisoner releases

Abiy has implemented many reforms since taking office in April 2018, including the release of thousands of political prisoners.

But Levy is the first high-profile foreign national to be set free.

For Smith, the release of businesspeople like Levy, along with political prisoners, signifies Ethiopia's strides toward a more democratic society.

“We want to be partners with Ethiopians. Again, the people are great people — historical — they deserve the best-possible government imaginable. They have not had it in years past, particularly under [previous Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi], and hopefully they’ll get it now.”