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In an unexpected move, the leader of Ethiopia announced on Wednesday plans to drop charges against the country’s political prisoners and shut down a notorious prison camp in what he called an attempt to “widen the democratic space for all.”
The comments of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn came after anti-government protests overwhelmed much of the restive Amhara and Oromia regions during the past months, bringing many universities, transport networks, and businesses to a standstill. The said protests expanded into other parts of the East African country, resulting in a months-long state of emergency that has already been lifted.
“Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released,” said Hailemariam. “And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.”
The number of political prisoners that were being held across the country, which is a close US security ally, was not immediately clear.
The citizens of Ethiopia were quick to respond, even with the social media sites currently blocked in the country.
“I’m writing you this struggling with my tears,” wrote Befeqadu Hailu, the renowned blogger and former detainee. “All these pledges need to be implemented immediately.”
Opposition groups and Rights groups in Ethiopia had been urging for the release of political prisoners, saying that they were arrested on trumped-up charges and were given punishments for their points of view. The government of Ethiopia has long been cited for arresting opposition leaders and critical journalists.
Some of the prominent politicians that are currently in custody include opposition leaders Merara Gudina and Bekele Gerba. Some journalists also remain in detention.
The months of protests that are demanding wider freedoms resulted in hundreds of reported deaths and tens of thousands of arrests while disrupting one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.
“The crackdown on the political opposition saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association,” said Amnesty International, a rights group.