Ethiopian Leader Defends Campaign against Critics; Trial of 131 Dissenters Set to Begin Today

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethiopian Leader Defends Campaign against Critics; Trial of 131 Dissenters Set to Begin Today


Byline: Betsy Pisik, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Prime Minister Meles Zenawi bluntly defended his government's crackdown on dissenters, saying the trial of 131 opponents beginning today would vindicate his administration's tough actions.

The 131 politicians, writers and activists "have been charged with crimes, and this is the normal process of the court," he said in an interview with The Washington Times. He urged his critics to listen to the evidence against the defendants, who face charges that include genocide, treason and undermining the constitution.

Human rights groups, Western governments and Ethiopians abroad have been harshly critical of Mr. Meles, accusing him of jailing thousands and killing many more since protests erupted over elections last year.

In the interview on Tuesday, Mr. Meles rejected those complaints with a common barnyard expletive and accused the West of having a "double standard" on human rights. He also denounced a "campaign of vilification" by vocal groups of Ethiopians living abroad.

Last weekend, security forces arrested a dozen people and accused them of plotting to blow up political targets. The state-run Ethiopian News Agency said the suspects were "linked" to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), an umbrella group for four major opposition parties.

The ring "planned to carry out attacks on certain buildings and public persons around Addis Ababa," Mr. Meles said, without offering specifics. "It is clear that this was a last-ditch attempt by CUD figures to create instability in Addis."

Western diplomats said it was impossible to assess the threat presented by the suspects but speculated that the arrests would allow the government to tighten security ahead of the court appearance today.

The Ethiopian government - led by Mr. Meles since his ethnic Tigrean group succeeded communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 - has attracted harsh criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups that monitor civil liberties.

Their investigators say that as many as 40,000 people have been arrested since the May 2005 elections, in which the opposition parties - including members of the largest, Amharic-speaking ethnic group - made strong gains but claimed to have been robbed of an outright victory.

Major protests in June and November turned violent, leaving 84 persons dead, many at the hands of police.

The crackdown led the European Union and World Bank to rechannel about $375 million worth of development assistance to a number of specialized agencies of the United Nations for distribution to the Ethiopian people through nongovernmental groups.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested last week that the Meles government might have had an "overreaction" to the strong showing by opposition parties. …

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