The Ethiopian government has released 1,500 political prisoners held in the eastern Somali region in the midst of a newly declared state of emergency and the recent resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
"On Wednesday, over 1,500 prisoners were released following a pardon by President Abdi Mohammed Omer," says the regional president’s office on Facebook.
Omer is president of the Somali region of Ethiopia and a member of the ruling People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (PRD).
"The inmates had been jailed on charges that include anti-peace activities," the post continued, without giving further details.
In early January and then again on Feb. 14, the national government released over 7,000 prisoners arrested during Ethiopia's frequent and massive demonstrations since 2015. However, they represent only a fraction of the 29,000 detained by state forces over the past two years.
Demonstrators are mainly from the Oromo and Amharic ethnic groups, who represent about 65 percent of the nation's population and live mainly in the Oromia and Somali regions. They say they are being shut out of the political sphere and made victims of major human rights abuses by the elitist governing classes.
Among those freed today are well-known journalist leaders with the opposition parties Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), whose charges range from disturbing the peace to terrorism. Some had been given the death sentence.
The government said the prisoners were set free to create "political space" in what is currently a tense environment.
The previous state of emergency lasted 10 months and was only lifted in August 2017.
Prime Minister Desalegn, from the PRD, announced his resignation Friday but says he'll remain in the position until a replacement is selected, in order to avoid a political vacuum in the second-most populous nation in Africa.
A rumored successor is Dr. Abiy Ahmed from OPDO, whose constituents have been prominent among the protesters.
After Desalegn resigned, the government decreed a six-month state of emergency, which prohibits "unauthorized demonstrations and meetings," obstructing transportation and traffic, and distributing anything "erroneous (which) contradicts" the government.
Several international bodies – including the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom – have raised human rights concerns about the latest state of emergency.