38 Are Convicted in Ethiopia After Political Crackdown

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
NAIROBI, June 11 -- An Ethiopian court found 38 prisoners guilty Monday of charges ranging from "outrage against the constitution" to aggravated high treason in a trial the prisoners called a sham, and which international human rights groups have roundly condemned.
The convictions came even as U.S. officials had been negotiating for months behind the scenes for the prisoners' release.
The prisoners' families and others have accused the U.S. government of softening criticism of Ethiopia's human rights record in light of the country's recent military intervention to oust an Islamic movement in Somalia. The U.S. government supported that intervention.
"The U.S. government will not pressure the government here because they have an interest in Somalia," said a relative of one of the prisoners, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being harassed by Ethiopian security forces. "It really is a big disappointment."
The prisoners were among an estimated 30,000 people arrested in a government crackdown following national elections two years ago.
Though opposition candidates made significant gains, they contested some of the results. When protesters began rallying in the streets, Ethiopian security forces responded with ferocity, spraying crowds with bullets, killing at least 193 people. In some instances, sharpshooters targeted certain opposition leaders, according to a government commission report.
Some of the victims were killed with a single bullet wound to the head. Among the other victims was a 14-year-old boy killed during demonstrations, and his brother, who was shot from behind when he ran out to help him. The wife of an opposition candidate was gunned down outside her house, in front of her children and her husband, who was being arrested, the commission report said.
The report found that the protesters were unarmed and that the government used excessive force.
After an international outcry, most of the 30,000 prisoners were released, but others, including the 38 found guilty Monday, remained in jail on charges that at one point included genocide.
Amnesty International called them prisoners of conscience.
According to family members, efforts by U.S. officials in the region were compromised by an apparent desire not to offend the government of a key military ally in the unstable Horn of Africa. The families said U.S. officials encouraged them to persuade their imprisoned relatives to sign a letter of apology to the Ethiopian government as part of a deal securing their release.
The prisoners refused to admit any guilt, however, and the 18-month-long trial proceeded.
"As an American, I'm ashamed and embarrassed that this is what my country can do," said the daughter of one of the prisoners, who is a U.S. citizen. "Not only am I sad. I'm terribly ashamed." Though some of the prisoners had refused to defend themselves in the trial because they considered the charges bogus, others were considering whether to go forward with their defense when the verdicts were announced Monday to surprise in the courtroom.
Last week, a joint U.S. and European Union conference focused heavily on Ethiopia.
Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), who chaired the conference and has been involved in efforts to free the prisoners, said he was "shocked" to hear of Monday's verdicts. Payne, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and global health, expressed concern that a kind of Cold War foreign policy had developed toward Africa, only this time with the fight against terrorism as its defining feature.
He cited the case of Sudan, in which he and other critics of U.S. foreign policy have said the U.S. relationship with Sudanese officials is compromising tougher action on the conflict in Darfur.
He also cited Ethiopia.
"I think that the Ethiopian authorities are very astute," Payne said. "They are aware of our behavior, and I think that they felt it wasn't even a calculated risk" to pronounce the prisoners guilty. "They thought they would be able to do this with impunity."
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Special correspondent Kassahun Addis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

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