Ethiopia freed a senior opposition leader, advancing efforts to calm political turmoil after violence and mass protests shook the country in 2015 and 2016.
Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, was arrested in late 2015 shortly after a trip to Brussels where he addressed members of the European Parliament as violence rocked the Horn of Africa country.
He was charged with collusion with groups outlawed by government in violation of rules imposed during a nine-month state of emergency lifted in August.
On his release from a detention centre, thousands of supporters thronged narrow roads and alleyways as a convoy of vehicles carrying him made its way towards his house in Burayu west of the capital.
Holding placards and the provincial flag, supporters – some sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Merera’s face – sang and chanted “Merera our hero” and “Unity of Oromo people”.
On his way home, Merera told journalists he never violated the law. “I was a former member of parliament and I know the constitution and the law. I have always respected that,” he said.
The opposition leader’s release coincides with mounting concerns over the long-term stability of one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Hundreds were killed during two years of violence triggered by allegations of land grabs in central Oromiya province, with protests then broadening into demonstrations over political restrictions and perceived rights abuses.
The unrest spread into northern Amhara and – to a smaller extent – in SNNP province in the south, as well as the arrest of several dissident politicians on charges of involvement in “terrorism”.
Facing mounting unrest, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said on January 3 several dissident politicians would be freed to “foster national reconciliation”.
Merera was released along with 114 other inmates, days after Ethiopia’s Attorney General Getachew Ambaye announced that 528 people would be freed over a period of two months.
Getachew said charges against inmates from Oromiya and Amhara provinces were also set to be dropped.
“While by all means a welcome step, the release of Merera Gudina … and other detainees must not be the last,” said Netsanet Belay from the rights watchdog Amnesty International.
“Hundreds of prisoners of conscience continue to languish in jail, accused or prosecuted for legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression or simply for standing up for human rights.”
The government in Addis Ababa has long been accused by rights groups of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and media freedoms. It denies the charges.