ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia's government announced Monday it would release hundreds of criminal suspects awaiting trial including imprisoned opposition leader Merera Gudina.
The announcement came less than two weeks after the government promised to free jailed "politicians," without giving details on who and how many people would be freed.
The release of Merera, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), has been a key demand of protesters from the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromos.
In 2015, the group took to the streets over a proposed expansion of the capital city which they feared would deprive them of their land.
Those protests led to hundreds of deaths and prompted parliament to declare a 10-month state of emergency in 2016 to quell the unrest.
However, demonstrations still occasionally occur in Oromia, the Oromo federal state.
Merera is among 528 suspects set for release this week, most of the rest of whom are accused of involvement in ethnic clashes in the country's south, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcast Corporate reported.
They were suspects facing criminal proceedings and had not already been convicted.
"The suspects will be freed Wednesday after receiving training today and tomorrow," Attorney General Getachew Ambaye told Fana BC.
It was unclear what kind of training he was referring to, but in past Ethiopia has made prisoners attend pro-government lectures before being released.
Beyene Petros, the vice-chairman of the Medrek coalition of which OFC is a member, called Merera's release a "positive move" but said it did not indicate a change in the government's attitude towards dissidents.
"There is no guarantee that they will not imprison the guys who are released today tomorrow," Beyene told AFP.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced earlier this month that jailed "politicians" would be freed "in order to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic platform."
The decision came amid growing evidence of fractures within the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, which saw two prominent officials, including parliament speaker Abadula Gemeda, an Oromo, resigned last year before reversing their decisions.
Merera was taken into custody in 2016 shortly after returning from Europe where he spoke out against the state of emergency.
The OFC chairman had addressed the European Parliament in Brussels at a session attended by Berhanu Nega, leader of the banned Ginbot 7 group that has called for the violent overthrow of Ethiopia's government.
The government said Merera had violated the state of emergency and later charged him with a range of offences including inciting riots and plotting a coup.