Ethiopia's prime minister has announced that the country will free all of its political prisoners, pardon them and close a notorious prison.
It's a surprising turnaround for a government that has launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent and had not previously admitted that it is even holding political prisoners.
"Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released," Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said at a press conference, according to The Associated Press. "And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum."
He added that the goal is to "foster national reconciliation."
Ethiopia has seen large popular protests for more than two years that showed no sign of stopping, despite hundreds killed and thousands of arrests. The demonstrations began in 2015, initially to protest government development plans near the capital, Addis Ababa.
Their scope later widened to protest corruption. Central to the demonstrations are the Oromo and Amhara communities, as NPR has reported, which make up a majority of the Ethiopian population but say they are marginalized politically.
Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa said in August that more than 29,000 people were arrested during a 10-month state of emergency that ended that month, Reuters reported. Protests continued after the state of emergency was lifted.
Hailemariam's announcement Wednesday came after marathon meetings with the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition. It's not clear who will be released from prison or when that will happen.
Activists and rights groups welcome the move but remain skeptical about whether the government will go through with it. They say the detainees should never have been arrested and are being targeted for their political beliefs.
Amnesty International's Fisseha Tekle said the announcement could "signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia."
Tekle says that for years, the Maekelawi detention center "essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent including peaceful protestors, journalists and opposition figures."
And in an interview with NPR, Tekle adds that the Ethiopian government is faced with a choice: "My wishful thinking is that there will be reform because through [the] hard way, through crisis and through unrest, the Ethiopian government ... has learned that repression is not going to work in Ethiopia."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Ethiopia's prime minister started the new year with a surprise. He announced that the government would release all political prisoners and also close a notorious prison. The move follows years of political unrest in the Horn of Africa nation. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is following this story from his base in Nairobi. Eyder, what did the prime minister say exactly?
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: This happened after the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, met with the ruling party. He called a press conference, and he dropped a big bombshell. He said that political prisoners would be pardoned and released and that they would close a notorious prison. The prime minister says that this will be done for the sake of, quote, "national reconciliation." And basically he thinks that this should spark some kind of national dialogue.
The unspoken part of this of course is that Ethiopia has seen some serious unrest for more than two years now. The country has seen constant protests, and the government has responded with a really heavy hand. For ten months, they declared a state of emergency, and when that ended last summer, the government said they had made more than 20,000 arrests.
SIEGEL: And you speak of the prison that's to be closed as being notorious. How so?
PERALTA: Yeah, so that's the Maekelawi prison. And it's essentially by all accounts a torture chamber. Journalists and opposition figures have been held there. But mostly that prison is a symbol of Ethiopia's long history of oppression. It goes back to imperial times. So the closing of it is a big deal. It's a symbolic big deal.
SIEGEL: What do you make of the timing? Why did the prime minister make this announcement in his new year's address?
PERALTA: It comes after a long period of protests. Most of the 20,000 people who were arrested have been released. According to estimates from human rights groups, more than a thousand of them were charged with terrorism. And one of the things that's important to understand is that Ethiopia has global ambitions. The government is trying to build a middle-income country. And it has made some strides, but these protests have really put a strain on those plans because they haven't stopped.
Another thing is that they've taken an ethnic tone. The Oromos, who are the majority in that country, started expressing disillusionment with never having had the presidency. And the Amharas, who used to hold power in the country, joined in as these protests went on with some of the same sentiments - that they felt left out of the prosperity of the country. So this became a very serious situation for a government that has a long history of repression. It was serious because two of the country's biggest tribes had essentially turned against it.
SIEGEL: From what you've heard from people in Ethiopia today, are the prime minister's words being greeted as a new beginning, or are they skeptical of what they've heard?
PERALTA: There is a ton of skepticism. A lot of activists on social media have expressed deep, deep skepticism. One of them said that this was a small step in the right direction, but he said it needed to be implemented immediately and without any conditions.
SIEGEL: One of the questions is, I gather, it's not clear who exactly a political prisoner is and as to when they might be released or when the prison might be shut down. Did the prime minister say?
PERALTA: That's right. The prime minister did not define who is a political prisoner. He did say that the prison will be turned into a museum but gave no timeline for that.
SIEGEL: NPR's Eyder Peralta talking about the announced closure of one of Ethiopia's most notorious prisons - Eyder, thanks.
PERALTA: Thank you, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONOPHONICS' "GOLIATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.