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Why did Ethiopia decide to release political prisoners?

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Earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced plans to release political prisoners in a surprise move the government says aims to "foster national reconciliation". The prime minister also declared that the government would close the Maekelawi detention facility in Addis Ababa, which has been considered "one of the country's most notorious police stations" since its construction in the 1970's.

While the international community welcomed the government's unexpected announcement as a step in the right direction, many in Ethiopia, especially civil society and political organisations, took the news with a grain of salt.

The obvious question many are asking is: What is in it for the government and why now?

Perhaps the answer partially lies in the fact that Ethiopia is host to a very important African powerhouse - the African Union (AU). The AU has long been trying to disentangle itself from Africa's poor human rights record, including systematic suppression of basic rights and detention without trial of political prisoners.

Ethiopia is currently seen as an impediment to these ambitions. Over the years, the Ethiopian government has repeatedly failed to deliver basic services to its citizens and protect their fundamental human rights and freedoms.

In this context, it is understandable for the Ethiopian government to try and live up to its responsibilities as a founding member of the AU, by promising to release thousands of political prisoners.

But there is certainly more to this recent........

© Al Jazeera