We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Ethiopia's decision on 'political prisoners' in context

10 43 483
10.01.2018

On January 3, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made two major announcements: his government will release political prisoners and close down a notorious detention centre at the heart of Ethiopia's capital, widely known as a torture chamber for dissidents and government opponents. Desalegn announced the decision as part of a wider package of reforms aimed at fostering national reconciliation and widening the democratic space.

Rights groups welcomed the announcement as "an important step toward ending long-standing political repression and human rights abuse in the country" while others saw the move as a significant concession to the relentless protests of the last two years by the Oromos and Amharas - the two largest ethnic groups in the country.

As local and international media began to scrutinise the rationale, implications and consequences of the announcement, most of the commentary focused on Ethiopia's perceived admission that there are political prisoners in the country. US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce even issued a statement praising Ethiopia for "finally acknowledg[ing] that it holds political prisoners."

Shortly after the announcement, however, the government distanced itself from this interpretation by emphasising the fact that the prime minister never used the term "political prisoners" in his initial statement.

Indeed, Desalegn only referred to "political leaders and individuals whose crimes have resulted in court convictions or have resulted in their ongoing prosecution under the country's law," in his statement and never gave a clear indication as to which prisoners will be eligible for release.

Ethiopia's political prisoners

The Ethiopian government has always denied consistent and widespread reports by human rights groups that it holds political prisoners. Like his predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi, who adamantly denied politicising the legal system to stifle dissent and opposition, Desalegn has also repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that Ethiopia is holding political prisoners.

Shortly after he took power in 2012, Al Jazeera's Jane Dutton asked Desalegn if he intends to "confront" the legacy of political repression he inherited from Zenawi and take steps to release the "thousands of [political opposition] languishing in jail". Desalegn said, "There are no political opposition that are languishing in prison."

In May 2015, shortly before the country's national election in which the ruling party won 100 percent of seats both at the national and regional levels, Al Jazeera's Martine Dennis asked Desalegn about the imprisonment of "record number of journalists" to which he replied "these are not journalists …The moment you join a terrorist group, you become a blogger".

No sitting government would publicly admit to holding political prisoners, and - even after last week's announcement -........

© Al Jazeera