More than 2,000 prisoners jailed for involvement in unrest that gripped Ethiopia between 2015 and 2016 have been pardoned, officials said on Friday.
The release is the latest of several in recent weeks, as authorities make efforts to calm continuing unrest since mass protests broke out in the Oromo region – dominated by the Oromo ethnic group – over accusations of land grabbing two years ago.
Hundreds have died in the protests and successive waves of repression. Analysts say the continuing disorder indicates a deep-rooted discontent with decades of rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
There have also been demonstrations and clashes in parts of the east African country dominated by the Amhara group.
In January, the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, appeared to promise that all political prisoners would be freed and a prison infamous for torture would be shut.
However, his office said Desalegn had been misquoted and that only “some members of political parties and other individuals” accused or convicted of crimes would be released “so as to establish a national consensus and widen the political sphere”. The pace and extent of the releases has remained unclear.
On Friday, top officials in the Oromo region announced that 2,345 inmates had been pardoned, of whom 1,568 had already been convicted and sentenced.
Earlier Merera Gudina, an opposition leader who was arrested in December 2016 on his return from Brussels where he had addressed members of the European parliament on the violence in Oromiya, was freed alongside 114 other inmates.
The government in Addis Ababa has long been accused by rights groups of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and media freedoms. It denies the charges.
Last week the United Nations urged Ethiopia to review the status of a “large number of people” still behind bars.
Nineteen people linked to a group known as Ginbot 7, considered “terrorists” by Ethiopian authorities, were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
The UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said the Addis Ababa government should review anti-terror legislation and laws “to ensure that they are neither interpreted nor implemented too broadly, thereby resulting in people being arbitrarily or wrongfully detained”.
Laws placing undue restrictions on non-governmental organisations and restricting the media should also be revised, Throssell told a news conference in Geneva earlier this week.
The EPRDF, which has been in power for 25 years, has been praised for bringing millions of Ethiopians out of poverty and ensuring growth rates that have averaged around 10% for more than a decade.
However, corruption and unequal distribution of the new wealth, coupled with a young and increasingly educated population, have fuelled growing anger.
Desalegn, who took over following the death of the veteran leader Meles Zenawi in 2012, has repeatedly promised political reforms.
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