ADDIS ABABA Ethiopia released the country's most prominent opposition leader from jail on Wednesday, four months after the government's landslide win in elections criticised by Western powers.
Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge, is the leader of Ethiopia's biggest opposition party, Unity for Democracy and Justice.
She left a prison in the capital Addis Ababa in a car with her daughter and mother, a Reuters witness said. Supporters said she was going to her home.
Critics of the government say she was jailed because she was the main threat to the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) at the May 23 election, which gave Prime Minister Meles Zenawi another five-year mandate.
The government has denied that accusation.
Some analysts said the release could be a drive to repair some of the damage to the country's democratic credentials following the landslide election victory -- and given that Meles has since consolidated power he can afford to be magnanimous.
"This may be part of a broader campaign to reorient the political system so that it at least appears to be more democratic," said David Shinn, a former U.S. envoy to Ethiopia.
"In fact, it might even become more democratic. Many of the original EPRDF leaders have moved or are moving to the sidelines. Meles has stated that he will not run for prime minister in 2015 and I believe he will not," he told Reuters.
Meles, in power since 1991, was sworn in as prime minister again on Monday after the May vote gave his EPRDF and allies 545 seats in the 547-seat parliament.
ROOM TO BE MAGNANIMOUS
Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa, where it is seen as a bulwark against the rise of militant Islamism. The country is also keen to attract foreign investment in large scale farming and oil and gas exploration.
Ethiopia's previous elections in 2005 ended in bloodshed when the opposition disputed a government victory and riots tore through capital, killing 193 protesters and seven policemen.
Opposition leaders, including Birtukan, were jailed for life after the government said they had sparked the violence in an attempt to overthrow the administration.
They were pardoned and released in 2007 when they signed a letter admitting to provoking the violence. Birtukan was sent back to prison in December 2008 after she denied responsibility for the trouble and said she had not asked for a pardon.
The U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2009 said there were credible reports that Birtukan's mental health had deteriorated during her time in prison. It called her a political prisoner, echoing rights groups.
A European Union observer mission criticised the May election and the United States said it failed to meet international standards. Demands by opposition parties for a rerun were rejected by the electoral board and the Supreme Court.
"Having secured an almost exclusive control of parliament for the EPDRF, consolidated his pre-eminent position within the ruling party, and more or less begun the process for smooth transition to a new generation of leadership, Prime Minister Meles can afford a bit of magnanimity," J. Peter Pham, Africa project director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, told Reuters.
"At this point, it plays well with both international donors and the Ethiopian public, without costing him anything."
(Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood)