Correction to This Article
Previous editions of this article on the Web and in print misspelled the name of Ephraim Isaac, chairman of the committee of elders that negotiated their release. This version has been corrected.

Ethiopia Pardons 38 Opposition Leaders

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 21, 2007

NAIROBI, July 20 -- The Ethiopian government on Friday pardoned 38 of the country's top political opposition leaders, released them from prison and drove them in three minibuses to homes they had not seen in nearly two years.

Across the sprawling capital of Addis Ababa, a stronghold of the opposition party, singing and exuberant celebrations carried on into the evening, though a sense of uncertainty lingered.

"The only thing I can tell you is that we are happy," said the brother of the city's elected mayor, Berhanu Nega, who was among those released. "We do not know what the future is going to be like, but I can tell you there is happiness all over the city."

Friday's pardons were perhaps most remarkable for their rarity. Opposition supporters still complain of being menaced in the capital. Journalists are routinely harassed. And human rights groups have accused Ethiopian security forces of waging a campaign of repression against alleged supporters of a militant separatist group in the country's ethnic Somali region.

Still, relatives of the released prisoners remained cautiously hopeful Friday that the pardoning would be a first step toward a more open society.

"I hope this will lead to a better reconciliation," said one relative who, in a sign of how fragile those hopes were, said he wished to remain anonymous. "I hope people can actually start building a democracy."

The released prisoners included the top echelon of the country's main opposition party. They were among an estimated 30,000 people arrested in a vast crackdown during protests following Ethiopia's 2005 elections, when the opposition made significant gains.

Though most of those initially arrested were released following an international outcry, 70 key leaders remained locked up in the dingy Kaliti prison on the edges of the capital. The 38 who were pardoned were convicted last month and on Monday given life sentences in a trial widely denounced by human rights groups. The others are still on trial.

Among the freed prisoners are some who were elected to Parliament in 2005 but who had refused to take their seats because they accused the government of cheating the opposition out of an even bigger win.

In a statement Friday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the pardons were complete and the former prisoners would be able to vote and run again for the seats they had left empty provided they "respect the rule of law."

"All of us should leave behind the past and look towards the future," Meles said at a news conference.

Though his government has been under considerable international pressure to release the prisoners, Meles said the fact that the release was negotiated without "outside interference" was a sign the country could handle its own affairs. In an apparent jab at supporters of a bill pending in the U.S. Congress critical of Ethiopia's human rights record, Meles said the pardons prove that "the Ethiopian government isn't willing and is unable to be run like a banana republic from Capitol Hill."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company