Opposition leaders on trial in Ethiopia

By Andrew England in Nairobi - Financial Times
Published: May 2 2006 18:37

The trial of opposition leaders, journalists and activists facing treason and genocide charges formally opened in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, despite widespread condemnation from human rights groups.
The prosecution said it would present documents and video and audio evidence to prove the 75 people charged, “were guilty of treason and attempted genocide against supporters of the government.”
However, opposition groups have said the charges were politically motivated. The defendants were arrested last year during a government crackdown on opposition supporters following bouts of politically motivated violence in the capital. They have refused to enter pleas.
Some 40 people were killed when violence first erupted in June after disputed May elections, and more than 40 others died during similar clashes between opposition supporters and security forces in November. Thousands of people were also detained as the government deployed soldiers, some armed with sniper rifles, on the streets of the capital, an opposition stronghold.
Donors withheld direct budgetary support to protest the government’s brutal response.
The opposition, which made unprecedented gains at the elections, but accused the government of rigging the vote, has dismissed allegations that it was trying to mount an insurrection. Amnesty International yesterday called on the government to release the defendants, saying they were “prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence.”
“This very worrying trial has major implications for human rights, media freedom and democratisation in Ethiopia,” said Kolawole Olaniyan, director of Amnesty’s Africa programme. “It will be a crucial test of the independence and impartiality of the Ethiopian judiciary.”
The elections - viewed as a test of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s democratic credentials - were initially declared the most open in a country blighted by a history of autocratic rule.
But after it became clear that opposition groups had made huge gains, the post-election process was marred by “intimidation, mass-arrests, killing of demonstrators and opposition personnel,” according to EU observers. Mr Meles was viewed as a favourite of donors and was appointed to the UK’s Commission for Africa.

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