Ethiopian political dispute comes to United States

Members of an Ethiopian opposition party who were jailed for 20 months in connection with a disputed election are lobbying the Bush administration and Congress to pressure Ethiopia to support a more open and democratic society.

Members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) delegation also plan to travel to various U.S. cities in an effort to continue to organize Ethiopian-Americans and to thank them for providing financial and political support during their incarceration.

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The CUD members were among a group of 38 who were pardoned in July after being imprisoned since November 2005. They had been arrested after months of unrest in Ethiopia that followed elections in May of that year.

A report written by the European Union called the election the “most competitive” Ethiopia had ever held, but said it was “marred by irregular practices, confusion and lack of transparency.” The report credited the government for allowing relatively unbiased campaign coverage in the weeks before the election but said support of Democratic institutions waned in the weeks following the disputed vote.

Government police reportedly arrested as many as 30,000 people in the weeks after the elections. Most were released soon after, but around 70 top CUD members were kept in jail, drawing condemnations from human rights groups and foreign governments.

Most were released in July and August after receiving pardons.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, Samuel Assefa, said the government had hoped the pardons would be the start of “a new chapter allowing us to reinvigorate the democratic process and enable healing to begin.” He said no other members of the CUD remain in jail.

While human rights groups condemned the government for the arrests, Samuel said the pardons were not issued earlier because the government did not want to impinge upon the independence of the judiciary.

“We have to be as fastidious as we can to support the rule of law and the Constitution,” he said.

The pardons came after eight months of negotiations from a group of elders. CUD members said they signed the letters seeking the pardons, which included apologies to the government, even though they believed they had not committed any crimes.

“For the sake of political stability and political dialogue we decided to accept the proposal from the elders,” said CUD member Gizachew Shiferaw, who was elected to a seat in parliament but refused to accept it unless the government agreed to a list of eight conditions CUD members said would promote democracy.

Samuel said CUD letters seeking pardons amounted to an admission of guilt. “Expressions of remorse are not compatible with allegations of trumped-up charges,” he said.

The members had been sentenced to life in prison just days before the pardons were granted.

Gizachew and two other CUD members who met with The Hill this week said they endured harsh conditions in prison as the legal process dragged on. 

CUD President Hailu Shawel said he was put in a small, cold room after his arrest.

“I wasn’t allowed to see the sun for a month,” he said. “A man of my age is not going to thrive in that environment.”

Hailu, who is now 71, suffers from diabetes and back pain that requires he use a cane when he walks. Another cell was infested with bugs, he said.

“They would migrate from the cracks in the wall in the middle of the night and come down and give you the treatment,” he recalled.

Conditions improved, Hailu said, when after two months he was transferred to a jail. But he and other CUD members were locked up with criminals even though they believed they were political prisoners.

Samuel denied that the CUD members were jailed because of politics.

Hailu said the U.S. government should do more to ensure human rights are protected in Ethiopia. He believes the U.S. hasn’t because Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is seen as an ally in the war on terror.

“This is where the U.S. is casting a blind eye. They don’t want to see the truth.”

In the protests that followed the election, 193 civilians died and six police officers were killed. The imprisonments and the crackdown on the protests led to an effort in Congress to tie U.S. aid to Ethiopian promises to create an independent judiciary and free press and to support human rights.

The House Foreign Affairs Africa and Global Health subcommittee passed the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, authored by chairman Donald Payne (D-N.J.), last spring.

A scheduled markup in the full committee in June was delayed at the urging of the group of elders, who said the measure could complicate their efforts to negotiate the release of the prisoners.

Gizachew and fellow CUD leader Bruck Kebede said using diplomatic back channels to improve Ethiopia’s democratic systems may be more expedient and effective than passing legislation. Hailu said he wanted to see Congress pass the bill.

“The ultimate desire is for all principles contained in the bill to be implemented,” Bruck said.

Samuel said the House bill would “drive a wedge between the two countries.”

“Considerations of this nature should be made soberly. This bill wouldn’t pass the sobriety test,” he said.

CUD members had met with the offices of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Reps. Payne and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and had scheduled a meeting with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). They were also working to meet with State Department officials.