Ethiopia gripped by fear of regime

By Betsy Pisik
March 21, 2006
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- A climate bordering on fear has taken hold of the Ethiopian capital as journalists, lawyers and politicians carefully measure their public remarks and contacts in the face of widespread arrests and prosecutions. "Oh, no, that would not be wise," said a law professor when asked if a reporter could observe a class where students were to discuss the ongoing trial of 131 opposition leaders, publishers, journalists and human rights activists. Despite boasting about the openness of debate in his class, the professor declined to give his name. The defendants face charges of attempted genocide, treason and "crimes committed against the constitution" -- which is punishable by death -- stemming largely from protests against elections last year. Tens of thousands more have been arrested on a variety of charges, according to Amnesty International, most of these stemming from violent political demonstrations in November. Advocates say it is impossible to know how many are still being held. Human Rights Watch offers anecdotal reports of farmers denied fertilizer and seed because of their political affiliations, nighttime sweeps by federal police and beatings at checkpoints. Most independent newspapers have been shut down. The few remaining news outlets carefully tailor their coverage to not run afoul of stringent government censorship. The longtime Associated Press correspondent was expelled last month. And visas are rarely issued to human rights advocates or investigators. In its annual human rights survey this month, the State Department reported a sharp increase in civil rights violations by the Ethiopian government during 2005. "We can say we've regressed since the May elections; there is no independent voice in Ethiopia right now," said Yoseph Badwaza, chief of the monitoring division of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, which lost three senior investigators when warrants were issued for their arrest. He said critics of the government are subject to intimidation, and many are arrested without charges, denied access to lawyers or contact with their families, and tried by judges who are "not independent." "This is a dictatorship in the guise of democracy," Mr. Badwaza said. "The recent crackdown is not the first of its kind, but we've never witnessed such widespread punishment and retribution." The turning point was the November general strike, called by frustrated members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), an opposition umbrella group. The CUD and other opposition parties had captured an unprecedented 220 seats in the 547-member Parliament, up from 12 seats previously, but felt cheated out of an absolute majority despite the finding of international observer groups that the election was generally fair.
Politicians advocated peaceful resistance, but protest demonstrations in June led to 36 deaths and another 46 were killed in the three days of protests in November, including seven policemen and soldiers. More than 100 were injured. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defended the use of force, but said a government inquiry would release its findings, possibly in April. The Bush administration has carefully modulated its criticism of Addis Ababa, reluctant to alienate a strategically located country of more than 60 million people that is an avowed ally in the war on terrorism. That has frustrated some European diplomats and many Ethiopians, who had hoped for a more outspoken response. "The last year or so has been one of promise and disappointment," said a U.S. diplomat in Addis Ababa, acknowledging that the government "has been operating more or less as a one-party state." Mr. Meles came to power with the military defeat of Mengistu Haile Mariam's communist administration in 1991. His backing comes mainly from the Tigreans, an ethnic group in northern Ethiopia that allied itself with the Eritreans' decades-long struggle that ended with independence for Eritrea. The opposition is centered on the nation's Amhara ethnic group, who have traditionally ruled Ethiopia; they are supported in the south by the Oromos, long oppressed by successive Ethiopian regimes. Mr. Meles took office with promises to rebuild a shattered economy and transform the country into a model of democracy. His government has made strides, especially by the yardstick of eastern Africa: International observers gave the May elections high marks for the quality of open debate between the parties, and the apparent lack of coercion at the polls. But while the opposition parties have become a much larger bloc in the parliament, they say the rules of procedure have changed to make it harder for them to air their issues. Beyene Petros, chairman of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces party, says the ruling party has silenced them with a rule change that requires 51 percent agreement to introduce any issue. "And when we do have a question period, they cut it off after maybe 15 minutes," he said in an interview. Politicians aligned with the CUD also say they cannot work effectively, with their offices shuttered and party leaders under arrest. Jailed CUD candidates include the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, a former prosecutor in the U.N. tribunal for Rwanda and a former high court judge.

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