Government lifts the state of emergency and releases political prisoners

In late March 2018, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) elected Dr. Abiy Ahmed as its new leader following a closed meeting of 170 of the party's senior leadership member. Ahmed, 42, is a former minister and Ethiopia's first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group since the current administration took power in 1991.

Since the election, the authorities have pledged to push through a raft of reforms. Abiy has travelled to several areas of the country, promising to address grievances and strengthen a range of civil and political rights

In late April, the new Prime Minister announced that he was considering introducing a two-term limit for prime ministers – the current constitution allows them to serve for an unlimited number of years. This is a considerable break from other governments in the region, such as Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda, which have sought to abolish or extend age and term limits for high-ranking elected officials

In early June 2018, the government lifted the state of emergency imposed in February following the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn after months of protests.

Association

A number of political prisoners - including journalists, bloggers, activists, academics and opposition leaders - were released between April to June 2018 in Ethiopia. Civil society groups believe that these moves are part of the reform drive of the new Prime Minister who has the backing of the EPDRF.

Opposition leader on death row released

On 27th May 2018, the authorities pardoned opposition leader Andargachew Tsige who was found guilty of "terrorism" and sentenced in absentia in 2009, over his role in the opposition group Ginbot 7. Tsige who has British citizenship was pardoned "under special circumstances" along with 575 other prisoners. According to the Attorney General the decisions was made with the "intention of widening political space.”

As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, Andargachew Tsege has been on death row for over three years. He was seized at an international airport in Yemen in June 2014 and transferred into Ethiopian custody shortly thereafter, where he was held in solitary confinement for over a year.

19 political activists released

On 4th April 2018, 19 political activists were released on 4th April without charge. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, on 24th March 2018, the activists had travelled to Bahir Dar to discuss the formation of a new political party and were arrested and allegedly ill-treated in the process. 

Among those arrested include Dr. Dessalegn Chane (a professor at Bahir Dar University), Gashawu Mersha, Yesuf Ibrahim (a lawyer and former university lecturer), Temesgen Tessema (a lecturer at Wolo University), Belete Molla (a lecturer at Addis Ababa.University), Nigatu Asress (a journalist at Amhara Regional TV), Belete Kassa (a former editor-in-chief of Qelem Qend newspaper) and Kassu Hailu (a lecturer at Enjibar University).

Imprisoned Canadian citizen returns home

Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than 11 years, was returned to Canada on 21st April. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 after being accused of being a member of the banned Ogaden National Liberation Front separatist group. He denied the charges.

Makhtal was born in Ethiopia and settled in Canada as a refugee, and later moved to Kenya where he operated a used-clothing business. He was working in Somalia in 2006, but fled back to the Kenyan border when Ethiopian troops invaded. He was detained by Kenyan authorities and summarily deported to Ethiopia.

Amnesty International welcomed his release saying:

“After such a prolonged ordeal marked by grave injustices and concern of torture and medical problems, to see Bashir back on Canadian soil and reunited with his loved ones was a beautiful sight…Bashir and his family have been through far too much to put into words. It is so good to know that the process of healing can now finally begin.”

Expression

Release of journalists, bloggers, and activists
 

11 journalists, bloggers, and activists arrested by Ethiopian security forces on 25th March 2018 were released on 5th April. 

As documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, the arrests were carried out while they were attending a private meeting in Addis Ababa at the home of journalist Temesgen Desalegn. The private gathering was held in recognition of the recent release of thousands of political prisoners amidst ongoing and widespread protests against political marginalisation and land grabbing in the Oromia and Amhara regions which began in late 2015. They had also allegedly displayed a flag that differs from the official national banner at the meeting.

Those arrested include journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesgen Desalegn, Zone9 bloggers Mahlet Fantahun, Befekadu Hailu, blogger Zelalem Workaggnhu and political activists Andualem Arage, Addisu Getinet, Yidnekachewu Addis, Sintayehu Chekol, Tefera Tesfaye and Woynshet Molla.

Blogger Seyoum Teshome, who was arrested on 8th March, was also released in mid-April.

Mobile services restored

In a positive step, mobile internet services that had been blocked for months, notably in the protest-heavy Oromia, Amhara, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Regions, were restored in early April 2018. All Internet and telephone services in the country are controlled by state-owned Ethio Telecom.