Meles  frees Birtukan
(Reuters) – Ethiopia released the country’s most prominent opposition leader from jail on Wednesday, four months after the government’s landslide win in elections criticised by Western powers.

Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge, is the leader of Ethiopia’s biggest opposition party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice.

She left a prison in the capital Addis Ababa in a car with her daughter and mother, a Reuters witness said. Supporters said she was going to her home.

Critics of the government say she was jailed because she was the main threat to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) at the May 23 election, which gave Prime Minister Meles Zenawi another five-year mandate.

The government has denied that accusation.

Some analysts said the release could be a drive to repair some of the damage to the country’s democratic credentials following the landslide election victory — and given that Meles has since consolidated power he can afford to be magnanimous.

“This may be part of a broader campaign to reorient the political system so that it at least appears to be more democratic,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. envoy to Ethiopia.

“In fact, it might even become more democratic. Many of the original EPRDF leaders have moved or are moving to the sidelines. Meles has stated that he will not run for prime minister in 2015 and I believe he will not,” he told Reuters.

Meles, in power since 1991, was sworn in as prime minister again on Monday after the May vote gave his EPRDF and allies 545 seats in the 547-seat parliament. [ID:nLDE6941R1]

Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa, where it is seen as a bulwark against the rise of militant Islamism. The country is also keen to attract foreign investment in large scale farming and oil and gas exploration.

(Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood

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