One of the main opponents of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian political figure Bekele Gerba, has applied for political asylum in the United States, he told AFP on Monday, denouncing the deteriorating political situation in Ethiopia and saying he feared for his life.
Released in January 2022 after 18 months in prison, Mr Bekele said on Monday that he had resigned from his post as vice-president of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the main opposition party representing this ethnic group.
The Oromo are the most numerous people in Ethiopia, a federal country divided into regional states along ethno-linguistic lines.
"I emailed my letter of resignation to the president of the OFC, Dr Merera Gudina, this (Monday) morning", Mr Bekele told AFP by telephone in the United States. "I have decided not to return to Ethiopia and have already submitted my request for asylum to the US government".
In the United States, where he has been since June 2022, "I realised that the political situation in Ethiopia was constantly deteriorating" with "intimidation, mass murders and arrests", he explained.
"The political context is not conducive to the peaceful struggle to which the OFC aspires. It is not possible to meet the people, so I felt I had no role to play.
"I fear for my life. I've been jailed three times in the past (...) my life is under threat this time. I don't think they'll just put me in prison. I am not safe, my family is not safe", he assured AFP.
Mr Bekele has spent a total of more than seven years in prison since 2011, imprisoned twice by the coalition dominated by the Tigrayan minority that governed Ethiopia for nearly 30 years, and then by the government of Mr Abiy that succeeded it.
He was first imprisoned for almost 4 years between 2011 and 2015, then for almost three years between late 2015 and early 2018, during the crackdown on the opposition protests that would bring Mr Abiy to power.
He returned to prison in mid-2020 after the violence triggered in the Oromia region and in Addis Ababa by the murder of the singer Hachalu Hundessa, standard-bearer of the Oromo people. He was released in January 2022 under an amnesty, along with several Ethiopian opposition figures.
Mr Bekele denied that he had been released in exchange for leaving the country: "There was no deal with the government, that's ridiculous. If there had been a deal, I would not have criticised the government" again.
He said he was pessimistic about Ethiopia's future. "The country is disintegrating. The situation will get worse in the coming months or years if nothing is done".
Another Oromo opposition figure released at the same time as Mr Bekele was Jawar Mohamed, a former ally of the Ethiopian government.