Analysis Ethiopia

Mixed signals on prisoner release casts shadow over Ethiopia’s push for political opening

Written by Zecharias Zelalem

(OPride) — The Ethiopian government plans to release additional 746 political prisoners, including prominent journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported on Thursday.

The impending release marks the second round of a government amnesty that Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced last month. It is intended to foster an atmosphere of “democracy and mutual understanding.”

A new update on Friday from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) dampened hopes for Eskinder’s release. Citing his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, CPJ wrote: “At 11 a.m. local time, a prison official asked Eskinder to sign a form which falsely stated that he was a member of Ginbot 7, an organization that the government deems a terrorist group. Eskinder refused and asked to see a more senior official. That request was not granted and the journalist was returned to his cell.”

In a Facebook post, Serkalem stated that Andualem was given the same or similar confession document. And, according to her, he too declined to sign it. Both Eskinder and Andualem have always contested alleged affiliation with the outlawed Ginbot 7 group. Their refusal to sign the false confession now casts doubt on when and if the two men would in fact be released.

According to Fana’s Thursday report, out of the total 746 prisoners slated to be free, 417 would be pardoned from their convictions; charges will be dropped for the remaining 329 inmates who are currently in trial proceedings. As with the first batch of prisoner release, which came on January 17, the soon-to-be-freed inmates will undergo a political re-education or the ruling party’s propaganda dubbed “training.” No official date was announced for the latest release but the prisoners are expected to walk free within days.

The dawn of a new era?

The political opening is the result of public pressure following three years of protests in Oromia and Amhara states and an intense lobbying by some members of the governing coalition, namely the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), which together represent two-thirds of the Ethiopian population.

Over the past year, both ANDM and OPDO have made strides to revamp their images and they are trying to ditch their perception as compliant puppets in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. To that effect, emboldened by the spontaneous uprisings of 2015 and 2016 that rocked both Oromia and Amhara regions, the two parties are pushing for serious reforms in the country’s judicial, military and security sectors.

The routine crackdowns against Amhara and Oromo protesters by federal security forces have resulted in unspeakable bloodshed and mass detentions. Oromos and Amharas have long complained about domination of the country’s politics, economy and security services by ethnic Tigrayans.

Leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant member of the EPRDF, still control the country’s military and security apparatus. Their grip on power has socially and politically isolated Tigrayan elite and allegations of Tigrayan bias and favoritism within the federal bureaucracy are commonplace.

TPLF appears to be yielding to some of the internal and external pressure about its hegemony; this is in part why OPDO and ANDM’s political clout has skyrocketed in recent months. The social and economic backlash, coupled with the poor PR from a year of protests and bloody crackdown, means central authorities in Addis Ababa know they cannot afford business as usual or another round of Oromo and Amhara uprising.

To be clear, Ethiopia’s political problems go well beyond concerns over Tigrayan dominance and economic marginalization. Eskinder and Andualem are but two of the countless civilian victims of the oppressive state machinery. The otherwise monumental news of their impending freedom is being met with skepticism because the draconian laws that punish even the slightest forms of dissent remain intact. The justice system is often used to facilitate the persecution of critical thinkers and those who dare speak out.

EPRDF is too stubborn to admit it but in the eyes of most Ethiopians and much of the outside world, the legitimacy and independence of Ethiopia’s courts and the legal system have long been compromised through machinations from the executive branch. For example, the 2009 anti-terrorism proclamation has made it nearly impossible for local journalists in the country to cover politics and human rights issues without risking imprisonment.

2018 ushered in what could be a new beginning for the country. Still, despite the fanfare that followed the release last month of 115 federal inmates, including Oromo opposition leader Merera Gudina, there are no signs of tangible political or legal reforms. In fact, authorities continue to send mixed signals. For example, on Feb. 5, four key leaders of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), including deputy chairman Bekele Gerba, were sentenced to six months on “contempt of court” charges for not standing when they were so ordered. All four have been in jail for more than a year, and Bekele Gerba’s plight is the subject of an ongoing campaign calling for his release. Doctors and family members say the 56-year old former English professor is at risk of losing sight in his left eye due to untreated hypertension.

Since Hailemariam announced his government’s plan to free political prisoners on January 3, nearly 6,000 prisoners from the Oromo and Amhara regions were pardoned or had their charges withdrawn. This is a positive first step in the right direction for Ethiopia but tens of thousands of people remain incarcerated in Ethiopia’s federal and state prisons.

Timeline of Eskinder and Abduelem’s ordeal

The fates of the two men almost appear to inter-linked. After being sentenced to lengthy prison terms on the same day, their releases were announced on the exact same day, six and a half years later.

  • Eskinder’s distinguished journalism career spans nearly two decades and his articles often feature stinging criticism of state policies. It is no wonder that he has been in and out of prison since the early 1990s; spending nearly a decade behind bars during nine different imprisonments.

  • In 2005, Eskinder and his wife, also a journalist, Serkalem Fasil were arrested following post-election disturbances in which 193 people died. The couple spent a year and a half in jail; pregnant Serkalem gave birth to their first child within the confines of the Kaliti prison.
  • Andualem, then a leader of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which won significant votes in the disputed 2005 elections including a near clean sweep in Addis Ababa, was initially sentenced to life in prison. He was pardoned in 2007 after signing an apology document admitting his guilt.
  • Upon release from prison, Andualem picked up from where he left off; he continued to criticize the government’s poor human rights record. In September 2011, less than a week after speaking at a press conference about media restrictions in Ethiopia, he was arrested again. On that same day, Eskinder was also nabbed for his online articles warning about an Arab Spring-style revolution in Ethiopia. Both were later charged with belonging to the outlawed Ginbot 7 party.
  • On July 13, 2012, Andualem was found guilty of terrorism charges and sentenced to life in prison for the second time.
  • Eskinder Nega was sentenced the same day to 18 years imprisonment.
  • The politically motivated charges and sentences against Eskinder were roundly criticized. A UN panel even published a statement arguing his incarceration “violated international law.”
  • Andualem spent his first month in prison without access to a lawyer or family visitation rights. He was attacked by another prisoner and injured in Feb. 2012 allegedly after prison officials encouraged a convicted murderer to harm Andualem. He was never been given access to proper healthcare for those injuries.
  • Eskinder remained active even behind bars, penning an editorial for the New York Times that was smuggled out of his cell. In 2012, he was the winner of PEN America’s prestigious Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his writings in a repressive environment.
  • Eskinder’s resilience behind bars earned him even more international recognition. In 2017, he added yet another prolific award to his collection, winning the World Press Freedom Award.
  • Similarly, last October, a United Nations Working Group called Andualem’s continued detention arbitrary and called for his immediate release. The report also urged the Ethiopian government to financially compensate him for the six years he unjustly spent behind bars.

Skeptics abound, Eskinder and Andualem’s release — if followed through — along with the freedom of some 6000 political prisoners, is indeed an unprecedented and welcome new development for Ethiopia. EPRDF should follow suit and immediately free Bekele Gerba and the legions still languishing behind bars.

To quote Merera, the ball is in EPRDF’s court; the freedom of political prisoners is but an important first step. Alone, the prison amnesty will do little to jumpstart much needed national dialogue if it is not followed by structural policy changes and legal reforms. The current status quo has proven detrimental to the country’s political and social stability. The options are limited but the choice is clear: EPRDF can save the country and itself from further chaos by opening up more prison gates and the political environment to the country’s much-maligned opposition. The people of Ethiopia wants this course of actions. Hundreds died fighting to see such a democratic breakthrough. EPRDF should honor their memories and aspirations by simply giving the power back to the people.

*Editing by Mohammed Ademo. This article has been updated with the news that Eskinder was asked but refused to sign a false confession document. 



About the author

Zecharias Zelalem

Zecharias Zelalem is a writer and journalist tackling sports and politics. He's also a contributor for Addis Standard and Ethiosports.

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