ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia freed a senior opposition leader on Wednesday, advancing efforts to calm political turmoil following violence and mass protests that shook the country in 2015 and 2016.
Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, was arrested in late 2015 shortly after a trip to Brussels where he addressed members of the European Parliament as violence roiled the Horn of Africa country.
He was charged with collusion with groups outlawed by the government in violation of rules imposed during a nine-month state of emergency that was lifted in August.
On his release from a detention centre in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, thousands of supporters thronged narrow roads and alleyways as a convoy of vehicles carrying him made its way towards his house in the town of Burayu some 15 km (nine miles) west of the capital.
Holding aloft placards and the provincial flag, supporters - some sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Merera’s face - sang and chanted “Merera our hero” and “Unity of Oromo people”.
On his way home, Merera told journalists that he had never violated the law. “I was a former member of parliament and I know the constitution and the law. I have been always respecting that,” he said.
The opposition leader’s release coincides with mounting concerns over the long-term stability of one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Hundreds were killed during two years of violence triggered by allegations of land grabs in Ethiopia’s central Oromiya province, with protests then broadening into demonstrations over political restrictions and perceived rights abuses.
The unrest then spread into the northern Amhara region and - to a smaller extent - in the SNNP province in the south, as well as the arrest of several dissident politicians on charges of involvement in “terrorism”.
Facing mounting unrest, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said on Jan. 3 that several dissident politicians would be freed to “foster national reconciliation”.
Merera was released alongside 114 other inmates, days after Ethiopia’s Attorney General Getachew Ambaye announced that a total of 528 people would be freed over a period of two months.
Getachew said the charges against inmates from the Oromiya and Amhara provinces were also set to be dropped.
“While by all means a welcome step, the release today of Merera Gudina ... and other detainees must not be the last,” said Netsanet Belay from the rights watchdog Amnesty International.
“Hundreds of prisoners of conscience continue to languish in jail, accused or prosecuted for legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression or simply for standing up for human rights.”
The government in Addis Ababa has long been accused by rights groups of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and media freedoms. It denies the charges.
Reporting by Aaron Maasho, Editing by William Maclean