Ethiopia Gives Amnesty to Prominent Detainees, But They Stay in Prison Over Safety Fears

Over a year into the Tigray War, the Ethiopian government announced Friday it would grant amnesty to several notable political detainees, but some decided to stay in prison due to safety concerns.

Some include opposition leaders like Jawar Mohammed and Eskinder Nega, state broadcaster EBC reported. Both were detained in July 2020 following protests against the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo musician and activist.

Jawar and Eskinder were told they could leave the detention center Friday evening. Though Eskinder left, Jawar's attorney Tuli Bayis said Jawar and some others refused to leave because the order for their release came so late in the day.

"They have security risks, so they preferred to exit the correction facility in daytime," Tuli said.

Tuli added that he does not know why they were given the release Friday, saying "we heard it is an amnesty. That's what we know for now."

The Ethiopian Ministry of Justice said it granted the amnesty "to make the upcoming national dialogue successful and inclusive." Legislators voted Dec. 29 in favor of creating a commission to open up a national dialogue, potentially taking the first steps toward negotiating an end to the war.

In a statement on the amnesty, the ministry doubled down on its commitment to keeping communication lines open, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed mentioning reconciliation for Orthodox Christmas.

"The key to lasting unity is dialogue," the statement said. "Ethiopia will make any sacrifices to this end."

Jawar Mohammed, Ethiopia
The Ethiopian government announced it would grant amnesty to several political detainees, including Jawar Mohammed. Above, Jawar is photographed during an interview in Addis Ababa on Oct. 25, 2019. Photo by Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty Images

It was the most dramatic move yet by the government after the country's deadly Tigray War entered a new phase in late December, when Tigray forces retreated into their region amid a military offensive and Ethiopian forces said they would not advance farther there.

The war in Africa's second most populous country has highlighted the deadly ethnic tensions posing the greatest challenge to Abiy's rule.

EBC also named several senior officials with Tigray's ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front party as being granted amnesty and said they will be released soon. They include Sebhat Nega, Kidusan Nega, Abay Woldu, Abadi Zemu, Mulu Gebregziabher and Kiros Hagos. They were arrested in late 2020 when government forces captured most of the Tigray region shortly after war erupted between Tigray and Ethiopian forces.

The Ministry of Justice said the TPLF detainees "were granted amnesty taking into consideration their age and health condition."

Friday's announcement came a day after the United States said its outgoing special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Ethiopia's prime minister to again press for a negotiated end to the war.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed Friday's development and called on the parties "to build on this significant confidence-building step by agreeing a cessation of hostilities and a lasting ceasefire, as well as launching a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process."

The U.N. chief said that following his last contact with prime minister Abiy, he also looks forward "to a meaningful improvement in humanitarian access to all areas affected by the yearlong conflict."

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said last month that an estimated 9.4 million people across Tigray and neighboring Amhara and Afar were "in critical need of food assistance." He warned Thursday that some U.N. agencies and aid organizations will be forced to halt operations in the Tigray region if humanitarian supplies, fuel and cash are not delivered very soon.

It's estimated that tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war that erupted in November 2020 between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray forces who once led the country. The government of Abiy, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize just a year earlier, by that point was wrestling with the challenge of various ethnic tensions growing in the wake of the prime minister's sweeping political reforms.

Those reforms have dramatically eroded with the war. Ethiopia's government has sought to restrict reporting on the conflict and detained some journalists, including a video freelancer accredited to the Associated Press, Amir Aman Kiyaro.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.