Systematic political repression in Ethiopia's largest state has kept people there from freely participating in the country's third general election campaign, a leading human rights group said Tuesday.
In its report, New York-based Human Rights Watch calls into question the fairness of the electoral process in one of the United States' closest allies in Africa, saying the ruling party has cracked down on political activities in the state of Oromia.
The southern state is home to the Oromo people, who make up a third of Ethiopia's 73 million people, and it has been the center of dissent against the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front.
"The political freedoms required for elections to be a meaningful exercise of Ethiopian citizens' fundamental right to participate in the selection of their government do not exist for many Ethiopians," the group said its report.
Information Minister Bereket Simon dismissed the report as an attempt to undermine Ethiopia.
"Human Rights Watch are lying and they are fooling nobody," Bereket told The Associated Press. "This organization is politically motivated and bent, as usual, on undermining Ethiopia."
Opposition parties disagreed.
"Oromia is a big problem," said Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy. "From the information I have, in a good part of Oromia it is becoming almost impossible to hold a fair election."
He said his party would ask the National Electoral Board to suspend the elections in many areas of Oromia and other places where the opposition has been unable to campaign freely.
Human Rights Watch researcher Christopher Albin-Lackey said donors finance about a fifth of Ethiopia's budget, but they have been unwilling to criticize the government's human rights record.
"The government has been so consistently hostile of any kind of criticism of its human rights record that they seem to have been largely successful in cowing the donor community into silence, which is surprising," Albin-Lackey said in Nairobi, Kenya.