Thursday, July 14, 2005

Ethiopia Plans to Lift Protest Ban This Week

Reuters AlertNet -- Ethiopia will lift a ban on demonstrations in Addis Ababa this week because "emotions have run out of steam" following bloody post-election protests, the government said on Wednesday.

"It is not going to be renewed," Information Minister Bereket Simon told Reuters, adding the ban was "definitely" due to run out this week. The government first imposed the month-long ban in the capital, an opposition stronghold, on May 15 a few hours after general election polls closed.

A month later it renewed the ban for a further month, after 36 opposition demonstrators protesting against alleged poll rigging were shot dead in the city, many by police.

"It (the ban) was meant to give us the opportunity to get a cooling time for the emotions. It seems that emotions have run out of steam now. The overall situation has subsided," Bereket said.

He indicated demonstrations would be allowed provided procedures were followed and local authorities consented.

"You go to the respective government authority that gives you the permit for demonstrations regarding the time and place and that will be left for the respective government office so that procedure is there," he said.

Partial poll results were released last week showing the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in the lead, but a further delay in the final tally has stoked tension among the population of 72 million.

Many fear renewed bloodshed if the final results, expected after investigations into claims of fraud are completed, award Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition a third term.

Bereket contested accounts by hospital officials that 36 people were killed in the June 8 violence, saying the real toll was 26.

Meles has said he had renewed the ban, which gives him personal control of security in the city, because the opposition had tried to overthrow what he called the constitutional order.

The election was only the second true multi-party poll in Ethiopia, Africa's biggest coffee producer and the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council says it believes young people are still being picked up around the vast Horn of Afrrica country for questioning about post-election unrest.

However, Bereket said only 300 people remained in custody in connection with the post-election violence and all students rounded up around the country had now been freed.

Bereket said he believed the opposition still generally favoured what he called a violent way of politics but it could not carry this out because ordinary people were content to let the probe into poll fraud take its course.

"It is my opinion that they have not shown us an earnest, fundamental departure from their violent way of conducting politics," he said.

"(But) the situation is not favourable to them. The public at large is ready to wait and see what evolves out of the investigation process so basically it is the objective situation that has denied them the chance."

Opposition groups were not immediately available to comment, but their leaders have consistently denied fomenting unrest.

"Addis is for sure in the hands of the opposition, the rest of the country is for sure in the hands of the EPRDF, so this is a basis for people to understand the situation," Bereket said. "I don't think that people expect a much different result from the investigations."

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