Ethiopia frees opposition leader

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Ethiopia freed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa on Wednesday, saying it had granted a plea for pardon from her.

The 36-year-old Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) leader was first jailed in 2005 when the opposition protested poll results that year, leading to unrest that resulted in the death of some 200 people.

Birtukan and other opposition figures were charged with plotting against the constitution in connection with those skirmishes, but were released in 2007 after being pardoned.

But she was sent back to prison in December 2008 after claiming she had never asked for pardon.

"It was very hard in jail. I found it very difficult to be alone for all that time. I am very pleased that I have been released," she told AFP Wednesday.

"I am happy to be back with my family and relatives after a long time away."

Asked what she planned to do next, she replied: "I can't say anything now. I'll need time to think about the future."

Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said Birtukan had submitted a pardon plea last month, while the justice ministry said she had regretted having denied being granted pardon in 2007.

"I express my deep regret for deceiving the Ethiopian people and government by denying my release on pardon," the ministry quoted her as saying in a statement.

"Pledging not to ever resort to these fraudulent and deceptive acts, I beg the Ethiopian people and government to grant me pardon."

"In her remorseful petition, Birtukan Mideksa implored the prime minister to grant her a second pardon for her to be able to see her aging mother and child," it added.

UDJ deputy chief Negasso Gidada said the party leader had arrived at her home after her release from Kaliti prison.

"We are very happy she is being freed," Negasso told AFP.

"Arriving at her house, she thanked her neighbours, relatives and family for all the support they gave her throughout her ordeal," said one witness.

Sources said the decision to free Birtukan was negotiated by a committee of wise men.

Britain's minister for Africa Henry Bellingham welcomed Birtukan's release.

"This is an important step forward. We have always taken the view that her re-imprisonment was not in Ethiopia's interest and a solution should be found... for her to be released," Bellingham said in a statment.

Ethiopia has been repeatedly criticised for stifling basic freedoms, a charge the government has denied.

This year's election in May, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition won nearly all the parliamentary seats, was slammed by observers as not being free.

Opposition groups rejected the results, but their bid to have a re-vote was rejected by the electoral panel.

Human Rights Watch said the Ethiopian regime had been gradually clamping down on political freedom since the violent aftermath of the 2005 elections.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International said it considered Birtukan a "prisoner of conscience,"

"She was imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association. We are delighted that she has been able to go home to her family," said Michelle Kagari, the group's deputy director for Africa.

© 2010 AFP

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