The unexpected announcement on 3 January 2018 by Ethiopia’s ruling coalition to release political prisoners and close the notorious the Maekelawi detention centre represents an important step in ending Ethiopia’s history of human rights abuses and political oppression. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn called the release of political prisoners – previously referred to as criminals – and closure of Maekelawi an effort to create national consensus, open political dialogue, and “widen the democratic space for all.” In a surprising move, Hailemariam told the media conference that “political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released…and the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum.”
The announcement to close Maekelawi, in operation since the ruthless Derg rule in the 1970s and 1980s, follows weeks of deliberation between the four political parties making up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Over the past two years, police have arrested tens of thousands of people and killed over 1,000 protesters. Numerous human rights organisations and several governments have accused Addis Ababa of using torture, mass arbitrary arrests, and unfair trials against political opposition members. Growing concerns and resolutions by the United States Congress and the European Parliament failed to halt the oppressive policies.
Getachew Shiferaw, who was charged with “inciting violence” in a private Facebook conversation, explained that the announcement was a “good thing.” “Three different regimes have used the facility and many citizens have paid sacrifices and have lived through hardship in the detention centre. I am saying this because I have seen people paying the price,” Getachew said. Amnesty International’s Feseha Tekle shared the sentiment, arguing that “those who were committing crimes in these prisoners [must] be held to account but the measure to close the prison is welcome and is seen as the first step.”
Observers say that this verdict is a peace offering in an attempt to calm the rising friction and protests that are threatening to collapse the African state. Ethiopia has struggled to dampen the ongoing protests by the Oromo and Amhara, the two largest communities, who are calling for an end to decades of systemic exclusion. The Hailemariam government has reacted with force, which has jeopardized the state’s growing economy and its place as an important epicentre for global apparel sourcing.
Whether Hailemariam’s is a call towards reform or a move to quieten growing international condemnation is unclear. Numerous questions surround the timeline for these plans, who qualifies as a “political prisoners,” and the number of releases. Given the secrecy around the centre, it’s not clear how many prisoners were being held in the prison. While the announcement is welcome news, some speculate that prisoners could be relocated for further abuse. The devil may be hidden in the details, so the next couple of weeks are crucial.