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Ethiopia frees opposition leader Merera Gudina

Celebrations as Merera Gudina among more than 400 others released from prison as part of a wider government amnesty.

Merera Gudina

Prominent Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina has been released from prison after more than a year in detention, according to local media.

The move on Wednesday came two weeks after Prime Minister Desalegn Hailemariam had announced that jailed "politicians" would have their cases annulled or pardoned "in order to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic space".

The government has so far pardoned more than 500 people arrested in the wake of widespread deadly protests that erupted in Ethiopia's central Oromia province in November 2015.

Merera, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was released along with more than 100 others from Kilinto prison on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. Some 360 others were also reportedly freed in the south of the country.

Speaking to reporters outside the federal prison, Merera called on the government to hold "honest negotiations" with political organisations.

"It would be good if the government conducts honest negotiations with political forces that have massive support, in order to create a democratic Ethiopia that accommodates everyone equally," he told the state-affiliated Fana news agency.

Hundreds of supporters gathered in Merera's hometown of Burayu to welcome him home.

They held banners that read "Incarceration and intrigue will not reverse the Oromo struggle", according to pictures posted on Twitter by the Addis Standard magazine.

Rufael Disasa, a lecturer at Wollega University, was also released, the Ethiosun reported. But Bekele Gerba, the deputy chairman of the OFC, who has been detained for more than two years, is yet to be freed.

Human Rights Watch said security forces have arrested tens of thousands of people and killed more than 1,000 protesters since the protests by the country's Oromo people began.

Anger over allegations of land grabs widened into protests over political restrictions and rights abuses, and spread to the northern Amhara region, prompting the government to impose a state of emergency that was only lifted in April last year.

Ethiopia denies that any of the detainees are political prisoners.

Merera was arrested in December 2016 shortly after he returned from Brussels, where he met members of the European Parliament and criticised the government's crackdown on protesters and the state of emergency. He faced a range of charges, including inciting riots and plotting a coup

The Addis Standard posted an image of a letter announcing Ambaye's decision to drop charges against Merera. It said the move was "for the benefit of the public and the government".

Awol K Allo, a lecturer at Keele University and an expert on Ethiopia, said he was very glad about Merera's release, but "this freedom is incomplete and meaningless if it does not include the freedom of his OFC colleagues and other opposition politicians locked up for speaking their mind".    

Amnesty International also welcomed the opposition leader's release, and called on Ethiopian authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience".

"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," Amnesty's Africa director Netsanet Belay said in a statement.

"To continue holding them is to perpetuate the gross injustice that they have already bravely endured for too long," he added.

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