Ethiopia’s state-run media yesterday reported that 746 prisoners would be pardoned, including renowned journalist Eskinder Nega, opposition politician Andualem Arage, and many other political prisoners.
While pardons are not uncommon in Ethiopia yesterday’s announcement is welcome news. But whether these releases are a genuine step towards a more open political and media space is unclear.
While they have not been released yet, yesterday’s statement comes after several announced releases of prisoners over the last five weeks that followed the government’s January 3rdpledge to release some prisoners. Among those already released include Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) chairman Dr Merera Gudina, who was arrested in December 2016 following his return from a briefing on Ethiopia’s human rights situation held in Brussels and organized by a member of European Parliament.
Eskinder has been in prison since 2011— his seventh time in detention. He was convicted under the country’s repressive anti-terrorism law for writings that were critical of the government. He has received numerous press freedom awards, and his plight has been emblematic of Ethiopia’s dire media environment.
Andualem was the vice chairman of the opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), which contested the 2010 elections. He was arrested in September 2011, and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison under the anti-terrorism law.
Many key political prisoners remain in detention - including OFC deputy chairperson Bekele Gerba. Bekele was arrested in December 2015, initially charged under the antiterrorism law, and his trial has been marred by due process concerns. An ongoing eye problem requires urgent medical treatment, something allegedly denied to him despite outcry from activists and others. Many citizens of other countries also languish in detention, including UK national Andargachew Tsege and Canadian Bashir Maktal, both accused of having connections to organizations designed terrorist groups by the Ethiopian government. Other jailed journalists include Woubshet Taye, serving his seventh year of a 14-year sentence.
Because the government is so far releasing some political prisoners and not others, it is hard to tell what larger commitment to reform they might signify. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of reasons to question the government’s commitment to reform and to permit peaceful expressions of dissent.