Ethiopia frees opposition leader
Birtukan Mideksa released from prison in Addis Ababa four months after a contentious election won by the ruling party.
Last Modified: 06 Oct 2010 14:21 GMT
Critics say Mideksa was jailed because she was the main threat to the ruling party in the May 23 election [EPA] 

A prominent Ethiopian politician who had been jailed for life has been freed, four months after the government's landslide victory in elections that were criticised by Western nations.

Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge and leader of Ethiopia's biggest opposition party - the Unity for Democracy and Justice, was released on Wednesday and left the prison in Addis Ababa, the capital, according to the Reuters news agency.

Witnesses interviewed by Reuters said Mideska, in a car with her daughter and mother, was going to her home.

Mideksa had been jailed for violating the terms of a pardon agreement. She and other opposition politicians had signed the agreement to secure their release after being tried for treason in the aftermath of the contentious 2005 elections.

Democratic signs

Critics of the government say she was jailed because she was the main threat to the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in the May 23 election, which gave Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, another five-year mandate.

The government denies that accusation.

Some analysts said the release could be a drive to repair the damage to the country's democratic credentials following the election victory - and given that Meles has since consolidated power, he can afford to be magnanimous.

"This may be part of a broader campaign to reorient the political system so that it at least appears to be more democratic," David Shinn, a former US envoy to Ethiopia, told Reuters.

"In fact, it might even become more democratic. Many of the original EPRDF leaders have moved or are moving to the sidelines. Meles has stated that he will not run for prime minister in 2015 and I believe he will not."

Meles, in power since 1991, was sworn in as prime minister again on Monday after the May vote gave his EPRDF and allies 545 seats in the 547-seat parliament.

Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa, where it is seen as a bulwark against armed groups such as Somalia's al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in the region.

The country is also keen to attract foreign investment in large scale farming and oil and gas exploration.

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