July 17, 2007

Human Rights in Ethiopia: Another Casualty of the "War on Terror"?

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman

An Ethiopian court sentenced 35 opposition politicians and activists to life in prison on Monday, AP reports. The prosecution had asked for the death penalty against the defendants, who included Ethiopia's top opposition leaders.

Those sentenced to life imprisonment include the leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Hailu Shawel; Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa; former Harvard scholar Mesfin Woldemariam; and former U.N. special envoy and former Norfolk State University professor, Yacob Hailemariam.

Human rights groups condemned the trial as an attempt to silence government critics, and opposition leaders have claimed it was politically motivated.

Where is the U.S. State Department in all of this? Absent without leave. It seems that since Ethiopia is doing the State Department's bidding in Somalia, the U.S. is turning a blind eye to the Ethiopian government's crackdown on dissent. That's what some of the relatives of the prisoners believe. The Washington Post reported on June 12:

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 a radical 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."

There is an effort underway in Congress to reform U.S. policy towards Ethiopia to put concern for human rights back on the table. H.R.2003, introduced by Representative Donald Payne, now has 77 sponsors. It would encourage democratic reforms in Ethiopia, beginning with the release of political prisoners. Human rights groups are pressing Congress to take action on the bill before the summer recess.

Unfortunately, the crackdown in Ethiopia hasn't received a lot of attention in the U.S. press. Your Representative needs to hear from you.


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