ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia's government says comments by the prime minister on Wednesday that appeared to refer to the planned release of political prisoners instead referred to imprisoned politicians.
The Associated Press and other news organizations interpreted the remark to mean a wider population of people in prison, including opposition figures and journalists, as alleged political prisoners. But the government steadfastly denies that the East African nation has political prisoners.
Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn had been speaking in Amharic to local journalists. He also announced plans to close the notorious Maekelawi prison camp in what he called an effort to "widen the democratic space for all."
His comments came after months of sometimes deadly anti-government protests in Ethiopia, the most serious since the current government came to power in 1991. The demonstrations engulfed much of the restive Oromia and Amhara regions and spread into other parts of the country, leading to a months-long state of emergency that has since been lifted.
It was not immediately clear how many such prisoners were being held across the country, a close U.S. security ally, or when they would be released.
Ethiopians were quick to respond, even with social media sites currently blocked.
"I'm writing you this struggling with my tears," wrote renowned blogger and former detainee Befeqadu Hailu. "All these pledges need to be implemented immediately."
Tens of thousands of people were arrested, and reportedly hundreds were killed, during the protests demanding wider freedoms that began in late 2015 and disrupted one of Africa's fastest growing economies.
Ethiopia's government has long been accused of arresting critical journalists and opposition leaders. Rights groups and opposition groups in Ethiopia had been calling for their release, saying they were arrested on trumped-up charges and punished for their points of view.
"Potentially big news," Human Rights Watch researcher Felix Horne said on Twitter after the announcement, as some observers waited to see the government's next move.
"Today's announcement could signal the end of an era of bloody repression in Ethiopia," Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekle said in a statement calling for prisoners' immediate and unconditional release.
While the plans to close the Maekelawi camp are welcome, "the closure must not be used to whitewash the horrifying events that have taken place there," Fisseha said. "For years, Maekelawi has essentially functioned as a torture chamber, used by the Ethiopian authorities to brutally interrogate anybody who dares to dissent including peaceful protesters, journalists and opposition figures."
Elias Meseret, The Associated Press