ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Thousands of Ethiopian demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Sunday demanding the immediate release of jailed journalists and activists in a rare show of public opposition to the ruling party which maintains strict control over the East African nation.
Protesters marched along major streets in the capital, Addis Ababa, shouting "We need freedom," and "We need justice." The peaceful rally was the first major demonstration since 2005 post-election unrest when security forces killed hundreds of protesters.
The protest is the first show of disapproval against Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's government. Hailemariam succeeded former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who died Aug. 20.
Communications Minister Bereket Simon responded to the demonstration by denying, to The Associated Press, that Ethiopia is holding political prisoners.
But demonstrators held pictures of jailed journalists, activists, political leaders and even covers of banned newspapers.
The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists in a December report listed Ethiopia as the eighth worst jailer of journalists in the world with six journalists in prison. Last year 49 Ethiopian journalists were in exile and 72 newspapers had been closed under Meles, said the committee. Muluken Tesfahun of the private weekly Ethio-Mehedar has been detained since May 4 for covering evictions near the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam that is raising tensions with Nile-dependent Egypt, said the CPJ.
After Meles died, the International Crisis Group had cautioned that the new government would find it difficult to contain public discontent in the absence of "any meaningful domestic political opposition."
In 2012 polls, the ruling party won over 99 percent of all regional and federal parliament seats. There is only a single opposition member in the 547 seat federal parliament.
Yacob Hailemariam, a former United Nations prosecutor, was among those who addressed the protesters at the close of the rally.
"In the 21st century when the rest of the world is freely exercising its rights . here in Ethiopia the daily news is 'this person got arrested'. 'that person received a life sentence'.this has to end," said Yacob in his speech.
Yacob was among scholars who led a popular opposition grouping in 2005 election when the ruling party lost key cities including the capital's city council. The country's electoral board declared the ruling party Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front as a winner on national poll tally. Protests broke out across the country and Yacob and his colleagues were jailed for several months before he was pardoned in 2007.
"They say the youth has worn out . I disagree. Once again the youth has to be a force change and it should take over to lead (an) opposition group to end the ruling party's dictatorship that has turned the country into a hell for us ... we can repeat 2005," shouted Yacob.
Many of the protesters on Sunday were Muslims who have been protesting alleged government interference in their religion.
Some Muslims activists who had been leading criticism of the government are currently in prison on terrorism charges.
"I don't care about politics . I don't care if they (the ruling party) rule forever but I would die for my religion," said a young protester who would only identify himself as Ahmed. "I am here to demand the release of our representatives . we won't stop until they are free," said Ahmed.
Protesters vowed to return to the streets in three months' time "unless the government releases journalists, activists, and Muslim leaders and annul unconstitutional legislations."
But Communications Minister Bereket denied that the government is holding political prisoners. "There are no political prisoners. There are only people who have been charged with criminal offenses," said Bereket to AP.
"We don't have any qualms about the protesters exercising their rights but when you see the character of the demands, calls to give up the trials and release persons who are behind bars, convicted of criminal offenses . it is both unethical and unacceptable. Also, the government cannot interfere and release people suspected of criminal offenses . we will have to wait until the courts give verdicts," added Bereket.
The minister said the government will not have "any problem" with future demonstrations. He however expressed concerns about what he called a fusion of politics and religion.