Western human rights organizations have charged Ethiopia with major violations of the rights of political prisoners since the 1974 revolution, but there are signs the situation may be improving.

About 500 prisoners were released in September in conjunction with the anniversary of the revolution, but it is not known how many were political prisoners.

The former head of the Ethiopian tourism organization, Habte Selassie Tafessa, and two others were released to help rebuild the country's tourism in the search for badly needed foreign exchange.

Those released most recently are unwilling to talk about their prison experience to reporters, and government officials declined to discuss the prisoner issue except to criticize Amnesty International, which maintains that there may be as many as 40,000 political prisoners.

Other observers put the number at half that or less, but it is impossible for outsiders to find a reliable figure. The International Committee for the Red Cross has not been allowed to interview prisoners, according to the annual report of the U.S. State Department. The report, however, says abuses of prisoners have declined in recent years.

Some former prisoners held during the 1977-78 "Red Terror" campaign, when thousands were killed, are willing to talk guardedly and anonymously three years after their release, a sign that the tension of those days has eased.

A writer who was detained for eight months by his kebelle, local government, said about 500 people were held in one house and compound. Forty slept in a room about 10 by 20 feet, he said.

After being held for about eight months, he said, he was finally questioned for the first time and released without any explanation for his detention. "So many people were being held they could not get around to questioning them," he said.

He is now back at his goverment job and doing some free-lance writing.

Another prisoner was held twice, once for 75 days and another time for four months, at the Gibbi Palace where many of the most serious political prisoners are imprisoned.

Conditions were not bad, but his government salary was cut off although he was never charged with an offense. One had to expect things like that during a revolution, he said.

About a dozen members of the royal family are still held, including Princess Tenagnework, the late emperor Haile Selassie's only living daughter, and four of his granddaughters. They are reported to be in Addis Ababa's main prison but are segregated from common prisoners. Visits are severely limited.

An Ethiopian familiar with the family said, "They've been held so long nobody remembers who is imprisoned any more."