Ethiopia frees 63 critics, opposition prisoners jailed over alleged coup

“The Ethiopian government hopes to widen the political and democratic space in the country with the freeing” of these individuals,” a government spokesman said.
Jawar Mohammed (C), a member of the Oromo ethnic group who has been a public critic of Abiy, addresses supporters that had gathered outside his home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa after he accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him October 24, 2019. – A day after supporters of the high-profile opposition activist took to the streets, burning tyres and blocking roads following rumours of Jawar’s mistreatment by state forces where at least four people were killed and dozens injured in protests in Ethiopia against Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, hospital and police sources said Thursday. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Ethiopia is set to release 63 high-profile critics and prisoners from jail, including opposition activists held over an alleged coup and other high-ranking dissidents that had previously been incarcerated.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that investigations had been dropped against 63 individuals and they would be released from custody later this week “for the national good”.

“The Ethiopian government hopes to widen the political and democratic space in the country with the freeing” of these individuals, spokesman, Zinabu Tunu was quoted in an AFP report.

Among those to be released are cadres of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), an ethno-nationalist opposition group blamed for attacks last year that the government described as a regional coup attempt.

Hundreds were arrested in the aftermath of the June violence in Ethiopia’s north that left five high-ranking officials dead and heaped pressure on a government struggling to cope with ethnic tensions.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had been praised for loosening control in long-authoritarian Ethiopia, and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was accused at the time of using the violence as a pretext to jail critics.

NAMA chairperson Belete Molla said their officials should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and welcomed the announcement of their release.

“We consider their imprisonment a politically-motivated act intended to weaken Amhara nationalism,” he told AFP.

Among others scheduled for release are activists from the Sidama ethnic group, which voted in November to form their own regional state after a long campaign for more autonomy.

Biniam Tewolde, a former deputy director of Ethiopia’s cyber intelligence agency INSA, who was jailed in 2018 for corruption, is also among those to be pardoned, his lawyer Haileselassie Gebremedhin told AFP.

Critics have accused Abiy of authoritarian tendencies, including locking up opponents, even as he embarked on sweeping reforms to foster a more open political and media environment.

Ethiopia is scheduled to hold elections in August and Abiy hopes to secure a mandate to pursue an ambitious agenda of political and economic reform.

But opposition parties and civil society organisations have questioned whether the elections will be peaceful and credible. 

Ethnic violence has persisted since Abiy was appointed in 2018 following several years of anti-government protests. 

Nearly 30 people were injured Sunday in an explosion at a pro-Abiy rally in Ambo, roughly 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of the capital, Addis Ababa.

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