Ethiopia’s prime minister has announced that the country will free all of its political prisoners, pardon them and close a notorious prison.
It’s a surprising turnaround for a government that has launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, and has not previously admitted that it is even holding political prisoners.
“Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released,” Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn said at a press conference, according to The Associated Press. “And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.”
He added that the goal is to “foster national reconciliation.”
Ethiopia has seen large popular protests for more than two years that showed no sign of stopping, despite hundreds killed and thousands of arrests by the government. The demonstrations began in 2015, initially to protest government development plans near the capital, Addis Ababa.
Their scope later widened to protest corruption. Central to the demonstrations are the Oromo and Amhara communities, as NPR has reported, who make up a majority of the Ethiopian population but say they are marginalized politically.
The Defense minister said that more than 29,000 people were arrested during a 10-month state of emergency that ended last August, Reuters reported. Protests continued after the state of emergency was lifted.
Hailemariam’s announcement Wednesday came after marathon meetings with the ruling EPRDF coalition. It’s not clear who precisely will be released from prison or when that will happen.
Activists and rights groups are welcoming the move, but remain skeptical about whether the government will actually go through with it. They say that the detainees should never have been arrested and are being targeted for their political beliefs.
Amnesty International’s Fisseha Tekle said the announcement could “signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia.”
Tekle says that for years, the Maekelawi detention center, now set for closure, “essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent including peaceful protestors, journalists and opposition figures.”
And in an interview with NPR, Tekle adds that the Ethiopian government is faced with a choice: “My wishful thinking is that there will be reform because through [the] hard way, through crisis and through unrest, the Ethiopian government…has learned that repression is not going to work in Ethiopia.”