ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopia released a senior opposition leader from prison on Tuesday and dropped all charges against him, a day after demonstrators blocked roads and staged rallies in several towns to protest against his incarceration.
Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was arrested in December 2015 after mass protests broke out in the Oromiya region over accusations that farmers were being forced to sell land with scant compensation.
He had been held initially on terrorism charges, which were later reduced to charges of incitement to violence.
“He just walked out of prison. We have confirmed that all charges against him have been dropped,” Mulatu Gemechu, a member of the OFC’s leadership told Reuters.
State-affiliated media confirmed that Bekele had been freed along with seven other opposition figures, and that the charges against him had been dropped. Ethiopia’s information minister was not available for comment.
Bekele’s release came amid a three-day strike across Oromiya province, which surrounds the capital, as well as a mass pardoning of dissidents by the government aimed at reducing unrest that has simmered since 2015.
Nearly 6,000 prisoners have been freed since January, mainly people who had been detained for alleged involvement in unrest in Oromiya, or, to a lesser extent, the Amhara region.
Bekele was sentenced last month to six months for contempt of court after he and other opposition members sang a protest song during their trial. Had he not been freed, a verdict on his incitement charge would have been handed down on March 7.
On Tuesday, large crowds marched in various towns in Oromiya and roads remained blocked with large stones, including in the towns of Jimma, Woliso and Legetafo.
Markets, schools and banks remained closed in most of the areas, residents said. Some protesters attacked vehicles.
“Many Oromo politicians remain unjustly incarcerated, such as Bekele,” said one protester in the town of Jimma, who gave his name only as Awol, speaking before news that Bekele had been freed. “All should be released. That is why we are striking.”
Sparked initially by an urban development plan for the capital, unrest spread in 2015 and 2016 with demonstrations against political restrictions and human rights abuses.
Rights groups say hundreds have died in the violence.
Ethiopia is often accused of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent, as well as suppressing non-governmental organizations and the media, which the government denies.
Ethiopia’s Web Blackout Ends, Raising Hopes of Reforms Under New PM
REUTERS — ADDIS ABABA — Internet users in Ethiopia said on Monday the government appeared to have ended a three-month online blackout, raising hopes of a relaxation of restrictions after the arrival of a new prime minister who promised reforms.
Mobile and broadband internet services shut down in December in many regions outside the capital that were hit by unrest that threatened the ruling coalition’s tight hold on country.
Rights groups accused the government of trying to stop them spreading news online and organizing rallies calling for land rights and other freedoms – charges the government denied. But internet users said they had noticed services returning following the April 2 inauguration of Abiy Ahmed.
The communications minister and the state-run telecoms monopoly did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
“We are very happy that it is back to normal,” said Hassan Bulcha, who runs an internet cafe in Shashemene, a town in the state of Oromiya which has seen some of the worst violence since protests erupted in 2015.
Groups that monitor internet usage in Ethiopia – one of the last countries on the continent with a state telecoms monopoly – gave the news a guarded welcome.
“Restoration of Ethiopia’s internet is a short-term win in a long-term struggle,” said Peter Micek of Access Now, a group that said it recorded two large-scale internet shutdowns in Ethiopia in 2017 and three in 2016.
The move was a step forward, but worries remained about the government’s wider commitment to freedoms, said CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa), a Uganda-based body that lists Britain among itsfunders.
“It would be too optimistic to expect that the new prime minister’s government will overnight dismantle all the layers of authoritarian control that have for decades been at the center of state power in Ethiopia,” said Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA.
The government has denied accusations that it abuses protesters’ rights and said it has only acted to keep order.
The new prime minister, a 42-year-old former army officer from Oromiya, has travelled to several areas of the country, promising to address grievances strengthen a range of political and civil rights.
But the country remains under a state of emergency imposed a day after Abiy Ahmed’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February.
Since 2015, hundreds have died in violence triggered by demonstrations over land rights in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region.
The protests broadened into rallies over freedoms that spread to other regions.
Unlike in other African countries where the majority of internet users access the web through mobile phones, internet cafes are still widely used in Ethiopia because smartphones remain expensive and mobile data costs are high.
Africa’s second-most populous nation has clocked the region’s fastest economic growth rates over the past decade but it has among the region’s lowest internet penetration rates.
People in Oromiya, which surrounds the capital, in the Amhara region, and in the eastern city of Harar and nearby Dire Dawa, told Reuters internet access and mobile 3G servicesresumed about a week ago.
Ethiopia’s Abiy strikes conciliatory tone in oath speech
DAILY NATION — Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, apologised to people harmed in recent political unrest and reached out both to the political opposition and long-time rival Eritrea at his swearing-in on Monday.
Abiy is the first ethnic Oromo to be selected by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as prime minister in its 27 years of rule.
In a parliamentary session, Abiy formally replaced Hailemariam Desalegn, whose surprise resignation in February came after more than two years of anti-government protests led by the Oromo.
“Ethiopians living abroad and Ethiopians living here, we need to forgive each other from the bottom of our hearts,” Abiy said in a speech after he was sworn in.
Abiy, 42, a former minister of science and technology, takes the reins of one of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-populous economies amid hopes that he will change the EPRDF’s authoritarian style of governing.
More than 1,100 people are being held without trial under a state of emergency declared after Hailemariam’s resignation.
They include dissidents who had been freed just months earlier in a mass prisoner amnesty ordered by Hailemariam.
While he made no mention of the emergency decree in his speech, Abiy reached out to the country’s opposition politicians, many of whom were incarcerated during Hailemariam’s time.
“We will not be seeing you as enemies, but be seeing you as brothers,” Abiy said.
Unrest among the Oromos started in late 2015 over a government development plan they decried as unfair, and soon spread to the country’s second-largest ethnicity, the Amhara.
The protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests and only stopped after Ethiopia was placed under emergency rule for 10 months from October 2016.
Referring to people who were hurt or jailed in the protests, Abiy said “I apologise from the bottom of my heart”.
He also extended an olive branch to Eritrea, Ethiopia’s one-time province turned arch-enemy, after a two-year war that started in 1998.
“For the common good of the two countries, not only for our benefit but for the two nations which are tied by blood, we are ready to solve our differences with discussion,” Abiy said.
“We invite the Eritrean government to show the same sentiment.”
Can Ethiopia’s new leader bridge ethnic divides?
A young reformer or an entrenched military man? Ethiopia’s prime minister-elect is the first from the Oromo ethnic group that’s been at the forefront of anti-government protests.
Community activists say the group has been marginalised and excluded from political and economic power.
Ahmed has a doctorate in peace and security, as well as long-standing military and intelligence ties.
Many hope his rise is an opportunity to turn the page on a difficult chapter in Ethiopian history.
Can he unite a country riven by ethnic tensions?
Presenter: Elizabeth Puranam
Negeri Lencho – Ethiopia’s communications minister
Tsedale Lemma – editor in chief of the Addis Standard
Mohammed Ademo – an Ethiopian journalist and founder of OPride.com, an independent news website about the Oromo and Ethiopia