Ethiopia urged to free all political prisoners



Ethiopia urged to free all political prisoners
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa

afrol News, 7 October – Ethiopian authorities are praised for yesterday’s release of opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa, who has been detained for almost two years. Now, rights groups urge government to release the remaining political prisoners.

The Ethiopian government’s release Ms Birtukan “should pave the way for freeing dozens of other political prisoners in the country,” the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement today. Ms Birtukan, the leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, had been detained since December 2008 following an earlier two-year imprisonment.

Her release was only assured as President Girma Woldegiorgis granted pardon to her, “following a recommendation submitted to his office by the Federal Pardon Board,” the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice said in a statement. The decision came in a wake of a formal petition submitted by Ms Birtukan to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on 15 September.

“Freeing Birtukan was a positive move,” commented Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch. “But for this step to be meaningful, the government needs to free the many others it is holding unlawfully,” the activist added.

Ms 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, Ms 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.

Ms 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.

According to Human Rights Watch, the rights situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated since 2005. “The Ethiopian government has repeatedly detained peaceful critics, closed political space, restricted the media and civil society organisations, 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,” according to the group.

The human rights activists say there could still be hundreds of political prisoners in Ethiopian jails, “sometimes subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.” No independent domestic or international organisations have access to all of Ethiopia’s detention facilities.

“Birtukan’s release does not change the fact that Ethiopia’s human rights situation remains dire,” Ms Lefkow said. “International donors to Ethiopia should press for real reforms,” she added.
By staff writer