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Ethiopian officials release top opposition leader

Ethiopian officials on Wednesday released a top opposition leader who had been sentenced to life in prison after the government said she had violated a pardon agreement and sent her back to jail in late 2008.

The Ethiopian government said Wednesday in a statement that they released Birtukan Mideksa because she requested a pardon last month, after spending nearly two years in prison.

The single mother and former judge was one of 100 opposition politicians and activists jailed after the 2005 election and charged with treason, but she was later pardoned after signing an agreement in 2007.

Officials say she violated the first pardon agreement by claiming in a 2008 speech in Sweden that the accord was politically engineered.

Birtukan's release comes just days after the swearing in of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his fourth five-year term. Meles seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup.

The prime minister's party won an overwhelming victory in May 2010 elections, knocking out many seasoned opposition legislators who had represented Birtukan's party.

Birtukan traveled to her family's home in Addis Ababa after her release, where residents welcomed her with flowers and jubilant singing.

She told journalists she had sought the recent pardon, but she did not say whether she would resume her political career or challenge the ruling party.

"Those issues are for another time and place," she said.

The U.S. and European Union expressed concern over the fairness of this year's election. Opposition leaders also called for a rerun of the elections over claims that opposition observers were turned away and that voters and candidates were intimidated.

Ethiopian election officials said they witnessed no irregularities. Since the last violent elections in 2005, some critics say the government has systematically stifled the competition.

"It's wonderful news that Birtukan has been released. The bad news is that she should never have been in prison in the first place," said Leslie Lefkow, one of the authors of an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on Ethiopia.

"We would strongly urge the government to release hundreds of other political prisoners who've been arbitrarily arrested," she said.

Her release was also welcomed by Amnesty International, which described her as a "prisoner of conscience."

"She was imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association," said Michelle Kagari, the organization's deputy Africa director. "We are delighted that she has been able to go home to her family."

Ethiopia is frequently criticized for its human rights record, including by the U.S. State Department, which in a March report cited reports of "unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity."

Still, the U.S. considers Ethiopia an ally and provides foreign aid. Both countries want to curb Islamist extremism in Somalia, Ethiopia's unstable neighbor to the east.

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Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.