Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Jailed Ethiopian CUD Leader Accuses Donors of Paying "Lip Service"

Hundreds of Ethiopian protesters march through Crawford, Texas, chanting 'God bless America' and urging President George W. Bush to end support for the government in Addis Ababa. A senior US diplomat is in Ethiopia this week seeking to cool its soaring border tensions with Eritrea and ease a domestic political crisis over disputed elections, the US embassy said(AFP/File/Mandel Ngan)

Sudan Tribune -- Ethiopia’s main opposition leaders who are being held in jail for suspected treason have said they will go on hunger strike starting on Monday 28 November to protest their innocence.

In their first interview with foreign journalists since they were seized on 2 November, four top leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) said they were being held for their political beliefs.

Speaking from prison, CUD leader Hailu Shawl insisted that his party had not been behind any of the bloody post-election protests that erupted in June and November. Hailu, his deputy Birtukan Mideksa, mayor-elect of Addis Ababa Berhanu Nega and human rights activist Mesfin Woldemariam all insisted the charges against them were trumped up.

"This is a political case, not a criminal one, said 70-year-old Hailu. If they can produce a single shred of evidence against us, let them [do so], because there is none."

"They are suspected of insurrection in trying to overthrow constitutional order," said Tadese Meseret, head of the government crime and forensics department and leader of the investigation.

Hailu, however, argued that it is within their rights to advocate for change.

"Political parties are formed to change governments. This is normal, but the ruling party says this is a crime. It is a crime if you do it with a gun, but we do not have guns," he said.

The hunger strikers will include all CUD members who are being detained, except those who suffer from illnesses like diabetes. They said they would take liquids, but not solid food.

Hailu also criticized foreign donors who support Ethiopia to the tune of 1.9bn dollars a year, for failing to help prevent the mass arrests of opposition members and journalists during a crackdown by the government following the disturbances.

"They pay lip service to democracy," he said during the 45-minute interview granted by the police authorities in Ethiopia.

"But after all the deaths that have taken place in Ethiopia, their response has not been proportional."

Some 88 people died in clashes with security forces that erupted in June and November.

"We had nothing to do with the demonstrations," said Berhanu.

"We have made it clear that violence does not foster democracy."

He added that across Africa, governments were using treason charges to silence opposition to their rule.

The four leaders, who were dressed casually, said they were well but appeared to have lost weight. All appeared to be in good humour, and joked with both journalists and police. Mesfin, 75, said:

"All we wanted to do was change this ancient country to bring it into the 21st century. We are not terrorists; we do not know terrorists and we are not remotely interested in terrorism."

Some 48 men and women, all facing similar charges, are being detained at the federal police criminal investigations department in Addis Ababa.

The leaders said they were being held in solitary confinement in a four-by-four-metre room with a bucket as a toilet. Although they are given three meals a day and allowed to take necessary medications, they said they are not allowed to speak to each other and can leave their cells for only 30 minutes each day.

"They are being treated humanely," maintained Tadese.

He added that cell doors are often open and that the prisoners are allowed out to get sunlight. They also have access to books and newspapers.

No date had been set for the investigations to be completed.

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