Who does qualify as a ‘political prisoner,’ how many political prisoners will be released, when will Maekelawi prison be closed, and related question loom following the ruling party’s recent decision.

By Abdi Latif Dahir (Quartz) |

The Maekelawi detention center in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, has a reputation as a site for the detention, investigation, and abuse of protesters and opposition politicians. For three months in 2014, it was blogger and human rights activist Atnaf Berhane’s home. Charged with terrorism for his critical writing and reporting on the government, Atnaf says he was kept in a dark cell with no sunlight and questioned up to eight hours a day.

In an unexpected move on Wednesday (Jan. 3), Ethiopia’s government announced that it would close Maekelawi, release its political prisoners, including those awaiting trial, and turn the controversial facility into a museum. In a press conference, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the move was aimed at creating national consensus, opening up political dialogue, and widening the democratic space. “Politicians currently under prosecution and those previously sentenced will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” Hailemariam Desalegn said.

Atnaf Berhane, who was at home when the news first broke, was astonished by the decision. “I didn’t expect that the ruling party would admit that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia,” said the 28-year-old, who is out on bail while defending his case.

The announcement follows weeks of meetings between the four political parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has governed Africa’s second most populous country since 1991. The decision is a peace offering, observers say, meant to appease growing internal discord that has threatened to bring the country to the brink of collapse.

Ethiopia has struggled to deal with ongoing protests by the country’s two largest communities, the Oromo and Amhara, who are calling for an end to decades of systemic exclusion.

Continue reading this story at Quartz Africa
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