Ethiopia frees opposition leader Merera Gudina
Celebrations as Merera Gudina among more than 400 others released from prison as part of a wider government amnesty.
Prominent Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina has been released from prison after more than a year in detention.
The move on Wednesday came two weeks after Prime Minister Desalegn Hailemariam had announced that jailed “politicians” would have their cases annulled or pardoned “in order to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic space”.
The government has so far pardoned more than 500 people arrested in the wake of widespread deadly protests that erupted in Ethiopia’s central Oromia province in November 2015.
Merera, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was released along with more than 100 others from the Kilinto federal prison on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. Some 360 others were also reportedly freed in the south of the country.
Speaking to reporters following his release, Merera said it felt “good” to be out of prison and called on the government to hold “honest negotiations” with political organisations “to create a democratic Ethiopia that accommodates everyone equally”.
He added: “I have never violated the law. I was a former member of parliament. I know the constitution and the law. I have been always respecting that.”
More than 1,000 supporters gathered in Merera’s hometown of Burayu to welcome him.
They held banners that read “Incarceration and intrigue will not reverse the Oromo struggle”, according to pictures posted on Twitter by the Addis Standard publication.
In Burayu town, some 23 km in the western outskirt of #AddisAbeba, the youth are waiting for Dr. #MereraGudina with banners that read (rough translation): "Incarceration & intrigue will not reverse the #Oromo struggle" & "When oppressed, even milk bursts out of its container." pic.twitter.com/SmY9KvC9Mp
— Addis Standard (@addisstandard) January 17, 2018
Rufael Disasa, a lecturer at Wollega University, was also released, the Ethiosun reported. But Bekele Gerba, the deputy chairman of the OFC, who has been detained for more than two years, is yet to be freed.
Security forces have arrested tens of thousands of people and killed more than 900 protesters since the protests by the country’s Oromo people began.
Anger over allegations of land grabs widened into protests over political restrictions and rights abuses, and spread to the northern Amhara region, prompting the government to impose a state of emergency that was only lifted in April last year.
Ethiopia denies that any of the detainees are political prisoners.
Merera was arrested in December 2016 shortly after he returned from Brussels, where he met members of the European Parliament and criticised the government’s crackdown on protesters and the state of emergency.
He was later charged with various criminal acts, inciting riots and plotting a coup.
The Addis Standard posted an image of a letter announcing Ambaye’s decision to drop charges against Merera. It said the move was “for the benefit of the public and the government”.
A letter announcing to discontinue the multiple criminal charges brought by federal prosecutors against Dr. #MereraGudina has been issued by the attorney general Getachew Ambaye. It stated charges were dropped "for the benefit of the public and the government." cc: @Belay_Ma pic.twitter.com/3gcM4n379N
— Addis Standard (@addisstandard) January 17, 2018
Awol K Allo, a lecturer at Keele University and an expert on Ethiopia, said he was very glad about Merera’s release, but “this freedom is incomplete and meaningless if it does not include the freedom of his OFC colleagues and other opposition politicians locked up for speaking their mind”.
Very glad that Merara Gudina has been freed but this freedom is incomplete and meaningless if it does not include the freedom of his OFC colleagues and other opposition politicians locked up for speaking their mind.
— Awol Allo (@awolallo) January 17, 2018
Hassan Hussain, an Ethiopian writer, called Merera’s release “a great victory for the Oromo and the Ethiopian people”.
“However, this is just a start,” he told Al Jazeera. “The regime has to do more.”
“The laws that were used to jail Merera are still in force … The anti-terrorism law is still there. The electoral system is still in shambles. The judiciary makes a mockery of justice. Without reforms, I don’t think the country will be able to contain the protests.”
Amnesty International also welcomed the opposition leader’s release, and called on Ethiopian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience”.
“Hundreds of prisoners of conscience continue to languish in jail, accused or prosecuted for legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression or simply for standing up for human rights,” Amnesty’s Africa director Netsanet Belay said in a statement.
“To continue holding them is to perpetuate the gross injustice that they have already bravely endured for too long,” he added.