Kinfe Mickeal Debebe never thought the day would come when he would be a free man again. But on this bright Wednesday morning he is walking down Africa Avenue in downtown Addis Ababa taking in all the sights with a smile while watching people go about their business. The opposition politician, 47, was recently released from prison after serving more than six years of a 25-year jail term.
“I was arrested in 2011 for organising a peaceful rally. They jailed me for my political activism,” Kinfe, popularly known as Aebebe Kestol, told Al Jazeera.
As North Africa was at the height of the Arab Spring, Kinfe decided he would also try to call for political reform in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation.
“I organised the rally to call for better human rights, freedom of speech, better democratic space. They saw me as a threat and used anti-terror law to throw me in jail. I never thought I would come out alive,” he said.
Life in jail was hard. Kinfe, who has lost his hearing in one ear, said torture was a common practice in custody.
“They damaged my right ear during interrogation. Investigation officers beat you until you said whatever they were accusing you of,” he said.
But Kinfe’s luck changed in an unexpected way. While he was in prison, streets protests erupted in Oromia region before spreading to Amhara region in the northwest of the East African country.
The protesters demanded political reforms and an end to human rights abuses and mass arrests.
Addis Ababa responded by introducing a state of emergency and cracking down on the protesters leading to the death of hundreds.
In February, as the political crisis dragged on, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned.
“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many. I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” Hailemariam said in a televised address as he announced he was stepping down.
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