Ethiopia has announced plans to release political prisoners and shut an infamous prison in the capital, Addis Ababa, in a surprise move the government says aims to “foster national reconciliation”.
The office of the Ethiopian prime minister said charges would be dropped against politicians currently being prosecuted, while political prisoners who are imprisoned will receive pardons, the Addis Standard magazine reported.
“Politicians currently under prosecution and those previously sentenced will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” AFP news agency quoted Hailemariam Desalegn as saying on Wednesday.
Desalegn made the announcement alongside other leaders in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, the country’s ruling political coalition.
The government also announced it would close the Maekelawi detention facility in Addis Ababa, which has been described as “one of the country’s most notorious police stations”.
“Police investigators at Maekelawi use coercive methods on detainees amounting to torture or other ill-treatment to extract confessions, statements, and other information from detainees,” Human Rights Watch has reported.
The government plans to turn Maekelawi into a “modern museum”, the Addis Standard reported.
The decision was taken “to create the space for a national dialogue and national consensus”, according to the magazine.
The government did not specify which political prisoners, or how many, would be released, and when.
Awol Allo, a lecturer at Keele University’s School of Law and an expert on Ethiopia, said the most important question will be how the Ethiopian government defines political prisoners.
“There is a range of people who were arrested, accused and tried and convicted of what we may call political crimes,” Allo told Al Jazeera, including endangering national security or the constitution, or “terrorism” or “terrorism-related” crimes.
Under that definition, Allo said “tens of thousands” of people could end up being released.
“Ethiopia has been using the judicial system to lock people behind bars,” he said.
“The government has always used courts for political purposes. When it comes to high-profile politicians, the government accuses them of all kinds of crimes – sometimes corruption, more recently terrorism – to eliminate those individuals from the political space.”
Amnesty International says Ethiopia has engaged in a “crackdown on the political opposition [that] saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association”.
Many of the recent arrests come in the context of widespread protests since late 2015 by the country’s Oromo people, who number approximately 35 million and constitute Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Hundreds of people were killed after Ethiopian security forces cracked down on protesters. After the government declared a state of emergency in the Oromia region, “more than 11,000 people were arrested and detained without access to a lawyer,” Amnesty said.
According to Allo, a combination of changes within the government coalition and public protests led to Wednesday’s announcement.
“It is that changing dynamics within the ruling party itself and the protests taking place outside that have really brought the government to its knees, forcing them to make this gesture,” he said.
However, Adama Gaye, a Senegalese journalist and commentator who frequently visits Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera the move should be viewed as “something that will be a revolutionary transformation of the country”.
With its economy experiencing double-digit economic growth, Ethiopia cannot continue being a “closed door” to the rest of the world, especially if the nation is to see continued foreign investment, said Gaye.
“In the short term, I don’t think they’ll allow any kind of democratic transition to happen,” unless the current opposition and international community push for it, he added.