Ethiopia Pardons 38 Opposition Members

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Ethiopia pardoned and freed 38 opposition politicians and activists Friday following international condemnation of their imprisonment and days after U.S. lawmakers took steps to criticize the country’s human rights record.

The opposition members had been imprisoned for inciting violence in an attempt to overthrow the government following 2005 elections, which were alleged to have been rigged. Critics said the government was trying to silence the opposition.

The United States had urged the government to show clemency. Ethiopia, which has a long history of rights abuses, is a key American ally in the Horn of Africa, an area that U.S. officials say is a haven for al-Qaida. Ethiopia sent troops to neighboring Somalia in December, providing vital military aid to oust a radical Islamic movement.

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Outside Kaliti Prison, dozens of relatives and supporters cheered, waved Ethiopian flags and whistled in joy as three minibuses carrying the freed opposition members left the facility.

Some of those inside the buses made the V-for-victory sign, which is also the symbol of Ethiopia’s opposition. They were released only minutes after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told journalists the government had pardoned them. They had been sentenced to various prison terms, including life.

Meles had said he hoped the pardon “conveys the message that people are given a second chance as long as they seek it.” The prisoners had written the government asking to be pardoned.

Meles said the prisoners’ right to vote and seek public office also had been restored.

Hours after his release, main opposition leader Hailu Shawel remained defiant, condemning the government and saying he signed a formal apology under duress.

Hailu, leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, said that he had no apology to make for protesting the 2005 election, because “for us it is a normal political protest.”

Others pardoned included Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa; former Harvard scholar Mesfin Woldemariam; and Yacob Hailemariam, a former U.N. special envoy and a former professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia.

Hailu also said the government has failed to fulfill all the conditions agreed to with mediators, such as allowing opposition politicians to take their seats in parliament and releasing all opposition members in prison.

“They (the government) are worse than they were two years ago. They don’t change, these people. They want to cover their loses. They know they lost an election. We know we won,” Hailu told journalists at his home, which was crowded with relatives who had come to welcome him.

Bereket Simon, an adviser to Meles, declined to comment on Hailu’s remarks.

“I suspect it’s a bit too late to reclaim one’s seat in parliament after boycotting it for two years,” Meles had told journalists earlier.

The Federal High Court trial began in December 2005 following postelection violence that erupted during protests over balloting six months earlier.

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Meles. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said they were marred by irregularities.

Late last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud but insisted they did not use excessive force. A senior judge who investigated the violence had accused the security forces of excessive force.

This week in Washington, a House subcommittee completed work on legislation that decries Ethiopia’s recent human rights record and opens the door for sanctions. The bill still would have to be passed by both houses and signed by President Bush.

On Tuesday, Barry F. Lowenkron, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, gave sometimes harsh testimony on Ethiopia before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

He spoke of the illegal detention of “opposition leaders and tens of thousands of their supporters.” ‘

“To this day, the crackdown casts a shadow over the Ethiopian government,” he said.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)