Hunt for al-Qaeda overshadows repression in Ethiopia, some fear

February 20th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

By Shashank Bengali, McClatchy Newspapers | February 19, 2007 ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Journalists here don’t criticize the government much anymore, perhaps because doing so has landed at least 15 of them in prison on treason charges.

Since a bloody crackdown after elections in 2005, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also has tried dozens of opposition leaders on treason charges, blocked anti-government Web sites and attempted to muzzle an independent inquiry into the post-election violence, which found that government security forces had killed 193 civilians.

Once hailed as a hope for democracy in Africa, Meles increasingly is whispered about in this cagey capital as a dictator. But he has a powerful ally in the United States, which is drawing on Ethiopian troops and intelligence in a shadowy hunt for al-Qaida operatives in neighboring Somalia.

While Meles’ actions have earned rebukes from international rights groups and some former friends in Europe – Britain, for example, has stopped direct financial aid to the Ethiopian government – U.S. officials are more circumspect. They’ve voiced concerns over the election violence and called for detainees to be released, but generally they praise Meles’ commitment to democracy.

“Everything may not be at the speed we would like, but at least it’s moving forward,” said Donald Yamamoto, the U.S. ambassador here.

Yamamoto said Meles’ military cooperation wouldn’t earn him a pass on human rights issues. But Meles’ opponents think that’s already happened.

Last year, after vigorous campaigning by the Ethiopian government’s lobbyists in Washington, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the House of Representatives’ Republican leadership blocked a vote on a bill that would have cut U.S. military aid to Ethiopia unless Meles took major steps to end repression.

Weeks ago, with tacit American support, Ethiopian forces attacked Somalia’s ruling Islamist militias, which State Department officials said had links to al-Qaida. The Ethiopians chased the Islamist leaders into remote southern Somalia, where U.S. forces launched two airstrikes last month on undisclosed targets.

The apparently successful Somalia operation “does put (Meles) in a somewhat stronger position vis-a-vis the United States,” said David Shinn, who served as the ambassador to Ethiopia under the Clinton administration. “That probably causes the U.S. to temper somewhat its criticisms on the human rights side, at least from the standpoint of senior officials speaking out.”

Before the Somalia invasion, “there was a lot of international pressure against human rights violations. The government was in a weak position,” said Aklu Girgre, a leader of the chief opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

“But the war in Somalia has enhanced its position. The government knows its position on terrorism has huge, huge American support.”

The slight, avuncular economist was one of the few opposition leaders who escaped imprisonment after the disputed elections, Ethiopia’s first under a multiparty system. Opposition groups failed to win a majority and claimed that Meles – a former guerrilla leader who came to power in 1991 by toppling the brutal socialist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam – had rigged the vote.

In the protests that followed, government troops fired on civilians in what an independent commission ruled last year was excessive force. Commission members later fled the country, claiming that Meles had pressured them to change their verdict.

Thousands of civilians were jailed and later released, but activists say that more than 100 opposition leaders and journalists remain in dank, rat-infested prison cells on the capital’s outskirts. Charged with treason and attempted genocide – allegedly directed against Meles’ minority Tigrayan ethnic group – they’ve refused to mount a defense in their slow-moving trial, which has been adjourned until March 5.

In recent months, Amnesty International, the human-rights watchdog group, has reported that dozens more opposition supporters have been arrested and held incommunicado. The group says some of the detainees have been tortured, charges that Ethiopian officials have denied.

These days in Addis Ababa, a have-and-have-not capital in which elegant piazzas abut ramshackle slums, there’s a climate of thickening fear and suspicion. Few people want to discuss politics with a foreigner; even fewer will give their names. The freewheeling independent newspapers that sprang up during the election season have been shut down.

Meles has called the violence regrettable, but justified the arrests on the grounds that opposition supporters wanted to overthrow the government by force. He’s initiated some political reforms, such as revamping the partisan elections board and opening parliament to opposition parties.

“Ethiopia since the elections has moved much faster and in a broader way to multiparty democracy,” said Bereket Simon, a top adviser to Meles.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in East Africa, totaling $11 million since mid-2005, according to State Department figures. This year, $2 million in American money will go toward counterterrorism training and equipment.

Meles generally has had the backing of Western leaders, who credit him with opening up Ethiopia’s economy during the 1990s. But workaday Ethiopians remain mired in poverty, with 4 out of 5 surviving on less than $2 a day.

“There’s no question that we need a change,” said Solomon Ayele, a 27-year-old with a struggling car spare-parts business. “There are no newspapers, no opposition, no freedom.”

Opposition groups are forbidden from staging public meetings, and the state-owned cell-phone network prohibits text messages, thought to be a favorite organizing tool. More recently the government blocked several popular Web sites run by expatriates, many of which are critical of Meles. All sites hosted by Google’s Blogger, a leading blog-publishing program, also are inaccessible.

Tewodros Wubshet, a 35-year-old aerobics instructor, said sophisticated Web users could easily tunnel under the government firewall. But he lamented the fact that Ethiopia is among the few governments worldwide – including China, Iran and Turkmenistan – that restrict Internet access.

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