In a surprise move, Ethiopia's leader on Wednesday announced plans to drop charges against political prisoners and close a notorious prison camp in what he called an effort to "widen the democratic space for all." This is the first time the government has acknowledged holding political prisoners.
Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn's comments came after months of sometimes deadly anti-government protests, the most serious since the current government came to power in 1991. The demonstrations engulfed much of the restive Oromia and Amhara regions and spread into other parts of the East African country, leading to a months-long state of emergency that has since been lifted.
"Political prisoners that are facing prosecutions and are already under arrest will be released," Hailemariam said. "And the notorious prison cell that was traditionally called Maekelawi will be closed down and turned into a museum."
It was not immediately clear how many such prisoners were being held across the country, a close U.S. security ally, or when they would be released.
Ethiopians were quick to respond, even with social media sites currently blocked.
"I'm writing you this struggling with my tears," wrote renowned blogger and former detainee Befeqadu Hailu. "All these pledges need to be implemented immediately."
Tens of thousands of people were arrested, and reportedly hundreds were killed, during the protests demanding wider freedoms that began in late 2015 and disrupted one of Africa's fastest growing economies.
As word spread Wednesday, Ethiopia's government sought to downplay the prime minister's announcement. A spokesman, Zadig Abraha, told The Associated Press that the country has no political prisoners and that "some members of political parties and other individuals that have been allegedly suspected of committing crimes and those convicted will be pardoned or their cases interrupted, based on an assessment that will be made."
Rights groups and opposition groups in Ethiopia had been calling for the release of political prisoners, saying they were arrested on trumped-up charges and punished for their points of view. Ethiopia's government has long been accused of arresting critical journalists and opposition leaders.
"Potentially big news," Human Rights Watch researcher Felix Horne said on Twitter after the announcement, as some observers waited to see the government's next move.
"In fact, there's a clear difference between political prisoners and politicians in prison," said Amha Mekonnen, a lawyer for well-known jailed politician Bekele Gerba. "But I believe those in detention are political prisoners. They were not arrested for stealing bed sheets but rather for allegedly crossing a red line while carrying out their political works."
"Today's announcement could signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia," Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle said in a statement calling for prisoners' immediate and unconditional release.
While the plans to close the Maekelawi camp are welcome, "the closure must not be used to whitewash the horrifying events that have taken place there," Fisseha said. "For years, Maekelawi has essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent including peaceful protesters, journalists and opposition figures."