Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Kinfe Mickeal Debebe never thought the day would come when he would be a free man again.
But on this bright Wednesday morning he is walking down Africa Avenue in downtown Addis Ababa taking in all the sights with a smile while watching people go about their business.
The opposition politician, 47, was recently released from prison after serving more than six years of a 25-year jail term.
“I was arrested in 2011 for organising a peaceful rally. They jailed me for my political activism,” Kinfe, popularly known as Aebebe Kestol, told Al Jazeera.
As North Africa was at the height of the Arab Spring, Kinfe decided he would also try to call for political reform in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation.
“I organised the rally to call for better human rights, freedom of speech, better democratic space. They saw me as a threat and used anti-terror law to throw me in jail. I never thought I would come out alive,” he said.
Life in jail was hard. Kinfe, who has lost his hearing in one ear, said torture was a common practice in custody.
“They damaged my right ear during interrogation. Investigation officers beat you until you said whatever they were accusing you of,” he said.
Reversal of fortune
But Kinfe’s luck changed in an unexpected way. While he was in prison, streets protests erupted in Oromia region before spreading to Amhara region in the northwest of the East African country.
The protesters demanded political reforms and an end to human rights abuses and mass arrests.
Addis Ababa responded by introducing a state of emergency and cracking down on the protesters leading to the death of hundreds.
In February, as the political crisis dragged on, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned.
“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many. I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” Hailemariam said in a televised address as he announced he was stepping down.
I never thought I would leave prison as a free man. I thought the only way to leave was in a body bag.
In came Abiy Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group.
Abiy, 41, announced a raft of reform measures and the release of thousands of political prisoners, including Kinfe. He also ordered the lifting of emergency law.
In a rare and candid admission, Abiy said last month that his country’s security institutions tortured and committed “terrorist acts” against its own citizens in the past.
“I never thought I would leave prison as a free man. I thought the only way to leave was in a body bag. I have seen people die in prison because of poor or no medical treatment,” Kinfe said.
Kinfe, who was arrested eight times previously, is clear in pointing out who was behind his release and that of thousands of other political prisoners.
“It was not the government that released us. It was the demands of the people that got us out of prison. The government had no choice but to release us, thanks to our people,” he added.
Many of Ethiopia’s opposition group were also placed in the country’s list of terrorist organisations forcing many to leave the country or go underground.
But that is changing now. Addis Ababa last week moved to remove three prominent opposition groups from the list of the country’s terrorist organisations, much to the delight of their supporters.
The groups – Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7 – have each been engaged in armed struggles against the government in Addis Ababa.
Brhanu Tekleyared is a member Ginbot 7 – an outlawed opposition group formed after a disputed election in 2005 and named after the date in the Ethiopian calendar when the vote took place – and has been out of prison for less than a month. He is still coming to terms with his newfound freedom.
In 2014, he was arrested while trying to cross the border into Eritrea where other members of the armed opposition group are based.
He was sent to six years in prison for been a member of what Addis Ababa called a terrorist organisation.
“In prison they used to beat us for fun. They waterboarded me. I have seen people who had nails pulled from their fingers. I never thought I will leave prison alive, let alone early,” Brhanu told Al Jazeera.
Soon after taking office in April, Abiy ordered the closure of Maekelawi prison – a notorious detention and investigation centre where rights groups and former inmates say torture was common. Both Kinfe and Brhanu spent time in that prison.
Addis Ababa has also promised to look into the demands of protesters and reform its justice system.
“There has been a lot of public demand regarding reforming our justice sector in general. We have acknowledged there were limitations to our justice system. We have agreed to look at our justice system and reform it and also broaden our democratic spaces,” Ahmed Shide, Ethiopia’s communications minister told Al Jazeera.
“We are taking the issues of human right and reform of the justice system very seriously.” he added.
The opposition members released from prison acknowledge the new government has started on the right path but say more needs to be done.
“Abiy is young and has many ideas but his government needs to do more. They have to repeal the anti-terror law and shake up the electoral commission before us in the opposition trust it and run in elections,” Kinfe, who ran for office before, said.
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