Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Top Western Diplomats Discussing Suspending Aid to Ethiopia

EiTB24 -- Lawyers for jailed Ethiopian opposition leaders the government blames for a week of violent political protests went to court Monday demanding their clients be charged or released.

Clashes last week between police and opposition supporters angered by the outcome of elections earlier this year left at least 46 people dead, drawn international condemnation and raised questions about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's commitment to democracy. The capital was calm Monday for the third day, with shops closed and taxis off the streets. Calm also appeared to be returning to key provincial towns were the violence had spread.

Meles has blamed the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy for the violence and vowed that opposition officials would be prosecuted.

"There is a massive contravention of the constitution," Getachew Kitaw, head of the Ethiopian Bar Association, told journalists at the court. "We are filing a habeas corpus application because the authorities have not produced the prisoners and they should do that in 48 hours."

Getachew was among 70 lawyers representing the top 20 leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, but he said thousands of opposition supporters had been detained across the country.

Charged or released within 48 hours

Most of the top leaders, among them chairman Hailu Shawel and vice chairman Berhanu Nega, have been held a week. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, a prominent human rights activist, also was being held. Under Ethiopian law detainees, must be charged or released within 48 hours. They must also have access to lawyers and be allowed family visits.

Nega Bonga, Berhanu's 84-year-old father, accompanied the lawyers to court Monday and told reporters he saw his son a day after his arrest when he was brought to his house for police to search it.

"He had slight bruising around the right eye," the father said. "We are very worried about him, because we do not know what condition he is in now."

Zeleke Wolde Mariam, sister of 75-year-old Mesfin, said her brother was ill but she was refused permission to visit him to check on his condition and that he was receiving his medication.

Not a normal demonstration

On Sunday, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, speaking in Germany, said he regretted the deaths but that police came under armed attack.

"It was not a normal demonstration," Meles said while attending a conference called "Partnership with Africa," convened by German President Horst Koehler. "And I don't want to justify it when policemen get in a panic, but I can understand it when there are people throwing hand grenades and using guns."

He pledged an independent investigation into the killings.

The U.S. and European Union pressed Ethiopia to release the opposition leaders, allow access to thousands of people detained and end a crackdown on independent media.

The violence has "damaged Ethiopia's international reputation," the U.S. and EU said in a statement read Sunday by read British Ambassador Bob Dewar.

Discussing suspending aid

The statement also urged opposition leaders to discourage violence, saying: "these distressing events have further deepened mistrust, as well as political and social divisions."

Top Western diplomats said they were discussing suspending aid to the country. The U.S. and EU are giving some US$1.3 billion (euro1.1 billion) in aid to Ethiopia this year. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the talks. The violence began Tuesday after peaceful protests Monday over the disputed May 15 elections.

The vote gave Meles's Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. Opposition parties have accused the ruling party of rigging the vote, and said the election and vote count were marred by fraud, intimidation and violence.

While the protests were sparked by the election dispute, many Ethiopians believe they reflect growing frustration over abject poverty in this nation of at least 70 million.

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