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Ethiopia to Release Political Prisoners in Attempt to Ease Unrest

Ethiopia announced it would release thousands of political prisoners and shut down a notorious detention center known for abuse in a bid to quell a rising tide of unrest in East Africa’s most populous country.


By

Matina Stevis-Gridneff in Nairobi, Kenya, and

Yohannes Anderbir in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In a bid to quell a rising tide of unrest in East Africa’s most-populous country and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Ethiopia said it would release thousands of political prisoners and shut a notorious detention center known for torture and abuses.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told reporters from state-controlled media in the capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, the ruling coalition he leads, will drop charges against political prisoners and will pardon those who have been sentenced.

Mr. Desalegn also said he planned to close Maekelawi, a detention center in northern Addis Ababa, and said there were plans to turn it into a museum.

The press conference wasn’t broadcast, but state media reported that Mr. Desalegn said the decision came as a step toward fostering national reconciliation and creating space for political dialogue after nearly two years of escalating unrest.

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Growing protests have been led by some of the country’s ethnic groups including the largest, the Oromos, and the smaller Amharas. They have amassed grievances for being cut out of the country’s financial prosperity and political participation, and for being targeted in a violent government crackdown.

Opposition figures welcomed the news cautiously.

Beyene Petros, chairman of Medrek, the biggest opposition coalition, said the reports were “music to my ears,” but that he would believe them when he saw them materialize.

“Our demand to release political prisoners has been there all along,” he said, adding that his own deputy has been incarcerated for longer than a year.

The Ethiopian government has long denied the very existence of political prisoners, and Wednesday’s announcement comes as a surprise break from that stance.

Politically motivated arrests have been mostly carried out under expanded antiterror laws, made more strict by a state of emergency declared in late 2016 after violent protests.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in a photo taken during an interview at his palace in Addis Ababa last year, said the government’s decision came as a step toward fostering national reconciliation.Photo: PETTERIK WIGGERS/PANOS PICTURES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, Mr. Desalegn had vehemently rejected the idea that dissenters had been mass-arrested and detained.

“Tens of thousands are now back at their homes. We only focused on the ringleaders. The rest are back in their communities. I think things are very well in this regard,” he said in late January 2017.

In the same interview, Mr. Desalegn blamed the country’s demographics for the explosive discontent, rather than government-led economic and political exclusion of ethnic groups.

He said 42 million of Ethiopia’s 100 million people were aged 15 to 34, leading to “a huge bulge of unemployed youth, which has become dissatisfied.…I think this is the source of dissatisfaction and violent protest which we witnessed,” he said.

Ethiopia has in recent years become a pole of attraction for international investors vying for a vantage point to sell goods and services to its massive population and, according to the International Monetary Fund, grew by 9% in 2016-2017.

But it is also very closed, keeping vital industries such as banking under state control, and using its sophisticated military and police to quash unrest.

Fisseha Tekle, the Ethiopia expert for rights group Amnesty International, said the timing of the announcement was indicative of the pressure the government was under, including from within the ruling EPRDF.

“Maekelawi is not the only place where the government is detaining political prisoners,” Mr. Fekre cautioned. “There are other official and unofficial places of detention where similar activities are going on,” he said.

The shuttering of the infamous facility is just one step in a long process, Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch said.

“It is critical that political space in Ethiopia is opened up and that citizens are free to express their political opinion without fear of arrest,” he said. “A release of political prisoners is long overdue and hopefully signals a major shift in the government’s tolerance of dissenting voices.”

Write to Matina Stevis-Gridneff at matina.stevis-gridneff@wsj.com

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