Updated | Family of British Activist on Ethiopia's Death Row Keeping 'Fingers Crossed' For Imminent Release

The partner of a British-Ethiopian opposition activist on death row in Ethiopia feels hopeful she may be finally reunited with him after the country announced it will release its political prisoners.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, said on Wednesday (January 3), that the government will release political prisoners and close the notorious Maekelawi detention center in the capital, Addis Ababa. The move is intended to promote political dialogue in the country, which has seen a rise in anti-government protests in recent years.

Political activist Andargachew 'Andy' Tsege, one of the founders of the Ginbot 7 political party, which Ethiopia classified as a terrorist organization, was jailed in 2014.

Although Tsege, a father of three, is being held at a different prison, his partner Yemsrach Hailemariam welcomed the prime minister's announcement and feels hopeful Tsege may soon be released.

She told Newsweek: "I feel like the statements coming out Prime Minister Hailemariam's office are sincere, so there is every reason to be hopeful.

"The expectation for many families, including us, to see our loved ones walking out of all the various prisons as free people is high. So fingers crossed."

Tsege moved to the U.K. in 1979 and was later granted asylum as a political refugee. In 2009, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by the Ethiopian government for an alleged coup attempt, which he denies.

Tsege continued to live in London with his family until 2014, when he was arrested by Yemeni authorities in collaboration with Ethiopian intelligence at the Yemen's Sana'a airport. He was then subsequently deported to Ethiopia and jailed.

At the time of his arrest, rights groups warned Tsege was at risk of being tortured, a practice Amnesty International said was rampant in the country's detention centers.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office told Newsweek: "Andargachew Tsege's imprisonment in Ethiopia remains a serious concern and we will do all we can to ensure his rights are protected. Foreign Office staff have visited him on multiple occasions and we remain committed to ensuring his ongoing welfare. We continue to raise his case at the highest levels in the government of Ethiopia."

Last October, a number of MPs called on Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to step up efforts to secure Tsege's release.

Johnson said he would not interfere with the "legal systems of other countries" and that calling for Tsege's release would not "be helpful at this stage", the Guardian reported.

In 2015, then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond expressed concern over Tsege's continued detention, in solitary confinment and "without a legal process to challenge his detention."

UPDATE (January 5): A government aide explained on Thursday, January 4, that the prime minister had been misquoted and only some political prisoners will be pardoned and cases will be judged individually, according to the BBC.

Private news site Fana Broadcasting Corporate said on January 5 that the African Union had welcomed the country's decision to pardon "some members of political parties and other individuals."

Andargachew 'Andy' Tsege
Political activist Andargachew 'Andy' Tsege (center) and his family. Tsege is one of the founders of the Ginbot 7 political party, which Ethiopia classified as a terrorist organization, He has been on death row since his arrest in 2014. Reprieve

"Political repression"

Rights groups have welcomed the prime minister's announcement, saying it was a first step to end alleged political repression in the country. But some have warned that many questions regarding when and how many political prisoners will be released remain unanswered.

Felix Horne, researcher with Human Rights Watch, said it was not clear whether the country will release only well-known political prisoners or also "thousands of ordinary detainees held in military camps and police stations, often without charge."

"The government needs to investigate years of alleged torture of Maekelawi's detainees and hold those responsible to account," he said in a statement.

"Ensuring independent and impartial investigations and prosecutions is critical to send a strong and clear message to security officials across the country that torture is no longer permissible and will be punished."

Amnesty called on Ethiopia to also amend the laws under which political prisoners are arrested, including the anti-terrorism law, which the government has been accused of using to stifle freedom of speech. The organization also urged the country to launch a prompt investigation on alleged human rights abuses that occurred at the detention center over the years.

People held in detention centers in the country also include those arrested during anti-government protests in Oromia and Amhara in 2015 and 2016. Demonstrations, labelled as the biggest unrest Ethiopia has witnessed in recent years, resulted in the death of at least 669 people, a figure the government confirmed in a report released in April.

Note: This article was updated to add the response of the Ethiopian government.