Birtukan Mideksa, a 36-year-old single mother and former judge, was escorted from Kaliti prison to her home in a modest hillside suburb of Addis Ababa shortly before noon. She had been serving a life sentence for treason – a charge many Ethiopians believe was politically motivated.
Hundreds of her supporters lined a red carpet they had laid from the main road to her home, clutching candles and flowers. Many chanted “Birtukan – Mandela”, an indication of the reverence with which she is held, particularly in the capital.
“I am so pleased to have been released from that horrible place and be to back with my mother and daughter and supporters,” she told the Guardian.
Her 75-year-old mother, Almaz Gebregziabher, who has looked after Birtukan’s six-year-old daughter since 2005, said she was “very happy”.
“Thanks to all the supporters, and to God,” she said.
Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, refused calls to release Birtiukan before the May election, in which the ruling party and its allies officially won 99.6% of parliamentary seats.
The decision to free her follows Meles’s swearing in earlier this week, and can be seen as a placatory gesture to local opponents and western allies concerned about democratic backsliding in Ethiopia since 2005.
A federal judge, Birtukan abandoned her legal career to join the opposition ahead of the 2005 elections. Despite significant gains in the poll, the opposition leaders accused the government of using fraud to deny them victory. Almost 200 people and several police officers died in major street protests that followed.
Along with most of the opposition hierarchy, Birtukan was arrested and charged with treason for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. After two years in jail, they were pardoned.
While some of the leaders went into exile, Birtukan was determined to continue the struggle inside Ethiopia, and was elected chair of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, the biggest opposition group. But in December 2008 she was rearrested, for disputing the official version of her release. Her original life sentence was reinstated.
Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu.