A European Union parliament delegation on Wednesday called on Ethiopia's government to release jailed journalists and activists, but in a sign the call may not be heeded the delegation was denied from visiting a prison it had been approved to see.
The head of the delegation, Barbara Lochbihler, said Ethiopia is jailing journalists and activists for "exercising their legitimate right to freedoms of expression, association and religion." The group is concerned by reports of misuse of the country's anti-terrorism legislation to stifle dissent, she said.
"Despite the country's excellent constitution, we note flaws in the impartiality of the judicial system," Lochbihler told journalists at a press conference Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Ethiopian Prime Minister said the country doesn't have any political prisoners and that prisoners would not be released "just because some European Union members said so."
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Ethiopian government criminalizes the coverage of any group the government deems to be a terrorist group, a list that includes opposition political parties.
"Among those jailed is Eskinder Nega, an award-winning blogger whose critical commentary on the government's extensive use of anti-terror laws led to his own conviction on terrorism charges," the group said in its latest survey, which placed Ethiopia among the world's top ten worst jailers of journalists.
The EU parliament delegation said certain broadcasters are jammed in Ethiopia and that access to the Internet and social media are "regularly restricted." The practice is at odds with the Ethiopian constitution, the delegation said in a statement.
The four-person delegation, drawn from the parliament's subcommittee on human rights, said the Ethiopian government must guarantee freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly at all times in accordance with its constitution and obligations under international law. The delegation met top government officials, activists and leaders of the opposition.
Earlier on Wednesday the delegation was scheduled to visit to the country's Kaliti prison where most activists are believed to be serving their sentence. But the prison director turned the group back on arrival, saying "he didn't have time to work with you," according to a member of the delegation, Jorg Leichtfried.
Leichtfried told a news conference their visit was "overshadowed" by the incident. He described it as an episode he doesn't wish to experience again. All four delegation members spoke about the incident, which appeared to have frustrated them.
The delegation said Ethiopia itself has requested international assistance to improve its detention centers and their visit was to have a firsthand experience of the detention conditions.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said he was not aware of any decisions either to grant permission to see the prison or to deny it. Getachew said only family members can visit the prisoners.
"We don't have any single political prisoner in the country. We do have, like any other country, people who were convicted of crimes including terrorism who are currently serving their sentence. They would only be freed when either they complete their sentence or probation on good behavior," Getachew told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "We are not going to do release anyone just because some European Union members said so."
He criticized the delegation's statement, calling it "unhelpful" to relations between Ethiopia and the EU.
The EU is one of Ethiopia's largest donors with millions of dollar spent on development projects across the country.
Hailemariam was scheduled to meet the visiting delegation on Wednesday night.
The European lawmakers also met with African Union officials. Lochbihler criticized Nigeria and the AU for allowing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to travel to Abuja earlier this week. The International Criminal Court has an arrest warrant out for Bashir.