Ethiopia releases senior opposition leader


Ethiopia released a senior opposition leader from prison and dropped all charges against him a day after demonstrators blocked roads and staged rallies in several towns to protest his incarceration.

Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was arrested in December 2015 after mass protests in the Oromiya region over accusations farmers were being forced to sell land with scant compensation.

He was initially held on terrorism charges, later reduced to incitement to violence.
“He just walked out of prison. We confirmed all charges against him have been dropped,” Mulatu Gemechu, a member of the OFC’s leadership told Reuters.

State-affiliated media confirmed Bekele was freed along with seven other opposition figures and charges against him were 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 simmering since 2015.

Nearly 6,000 prisoners have been freed this year, mainly people 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 Jimma, Woliso and Legetafo.

Markets, schools and banks remained closed in most areas, residents said. Some protesters attacked vehicles.
“Many Oromo politicians remain unjustly incarcerated, such as Bekele,” said one protester in Jimma, who gave his name only as Awol, speaking ahead of news Bekele was freed. “All should be released. That is why we are striking.”

Sparked initially by an urban development plan for Addis Ababa, 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 as an excuse to stifle dissent, as well as suppressing non-governmental organisations and the media, which government denies.