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(New York) – The Ethiopian government’s release on October 6, 2010, of detained opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa should pave the way for freeing dozens of other political prisoners in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Birtukan, the leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, had been detained since December 2008 following an earlier two-year imprisonment.

“Freeing Birtukan was a positive move,” said Leslie Lefkow, senior Horn of Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But for this step to be meaningful, the government needs to free the many others it is holding unlawfully.”

Birtukan, 36, was one of dozens of opposition political leaders arrested and charged with treason and other crimes in late 2005, following the May 2005 national elections. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005, and arrested tens of thousands of people.

Along with many other opposition leaders, Birtukan was pardoned in 2007 after spending almost two years in jail. She was rearrested in December 2008 after the government contended that she had reneged on the terms of the pardon by denying that she had asked for one. In December 2009 UN experts determined that her detention was arbitrary, in violation of international law.

Birtukan’s release comes just months after Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections in May – the first since 2005. Unity for Democracy and Justice and other opposition parties participated, but the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party won 99.6 percent of the seats. European Union observers said the elections “fell short” of international standards.

Since 2005 the Ethiopian government has repeatedly detained peaceful critics, closed political space, restricted the media and civil society organizations, and leveraged government resources such as civil service jobs, loans, food assistance and educational opportunities to compel citizens to leave the opposition and join the ruling party.

Birtukan’s detention has received international attention, but hundreds of other Ethiopians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained and sometimes subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. No independent domestic or international organizations have access to all of Ethiopia’s detention facilities, so it is impossible to determine the number of political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Birtukan’s release does not change the fact that Ethiopia’s human rights situation remains dire,” Lefkow said. International donors to Ethiopia should press for real reforms, including the release of dozens of  political prisoners, the repeal of pernicious legislation, and an end to  impunity for serious crimes by the security forces.”

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