Addis Ababa – Ethiopia released a jailed opposition leader and journalist on Wednesday and dropped charges against a group of bloggers in a wave of prisoner releases and pardons.
An AFP videographer said politician Andualem Arage and journalist Eskinder Nega left a prison in the capital Addis Ababa before a crowd of about 100 supporters.
“The struggle must continue. Better things should come for all of us, and a bright sunshine of democracy must shine in Ethiopia,” said Andualem, who was serving a life sentence on accusations of links to the banned Ginbot 7 group.
The case of Andualem and Eskinder, who was given an 18-year sentence on the same allegation, has attracted condemnation from rights groups and Ethiopia’s ally the United States.
Their release comes amid a string of pardons and prisoner releases that began last month, after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the government would release jailed “politicians” in order “to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic platform”.
Shameful miscarriage of justice
“We are pleased that Eskinder Nega is finally free since his arrest and conviction was a shameful miscarriage of justice,” the Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal said.
“We now urge the Ethiopian government to drop charges against other journalists and to implement the reforms needed for a free press to flourish.”
Separately, prosecutors dropped charges against two bloggers from the Zone 9 website and said they would withdraw the case against a third, bringing to an end a prosecution that has been denounced as an attack on press freedom.
“The judge says they have dropped charges,” blogger Atnafu Berhane told AFP.
Prosecutors withdrew allegations of inciting violence against bloggers Befekadu Haile and Natnael Feleke, Atnafu said.
He added that his own charge, also of inciting violence, wasn’t dropped because of a courtroom error, but that he expects it to be withdrawn on Friday.
Zone 9 took their name from the term reportedly used by prisoners of an Addis Ababa jail, which has eight zones.
The ninth refers to the rest of the country – where civic liberties are also in short supply, according to government critics.
Six Zone 9 bloggers were arrested in April 2014 as part of a wider crackdown in the East African country.
Two were released in July of the following year, while the remaining four were charged with terrorism alongside another blogger, Soleyana Gebremichael, who was tried in absentia as she was living in exile in the United States.
While the five were eventually acquitted, prosecutors last year won permission from Ethiopia’s Supreme Court to retry Natnael and Atnafu on new charges, while Befekadu was also tried separately.
While welcoming the end of the prosecution, Atnafu said reforms were needed to protect bloggers like himself.
“It’s not a real change, it’s not a real reform. The political space has to be open for all decent voices,” he said.