A leading member of the U.S. Congress has condemned the Ethiopian government’s handling of demonstrations this week and the arrest of opposition politicians.
Representative Chris Smith, chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, said in a statement that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s handling of post-election dissent violates the “rights of free speech and assembly” of Ethiopians.
Mr. Smith also condemned the detention of opposition politicians.
Mr. Smith visited Ethiopia in August and held talks with the prime minister.
Meanwhile, nine members of the Congressional Ethiopia Caucus have appealed for peace and urged both Ethiopian security forces and demonstrators to refrain from violence.
The Ethiopian government has blamed opposition parties for fomenting unrest, and says it is acting responsibly in trying to restore order.
Text of Mr. Smith's statement:
WASHINGTON – Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, today criticized the Ethiopian government’s violent response to protestors and condemned the continuing refusal of the Ethiopian government to allow peaceful protests. More than 30 persons have been killed in clashes this week in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa, touched off by violent police reaction to continuing electoral protests by opposition parties and their supporters. Smith has been monitoring the situation since chairing a Congressional hearing this past spring and visiting Ethiopia this summer.
“When I led a delegation to Addis in August, I urged Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to respect the rights of free speech and assembly and to immediately investigate the shooting of more than 40 election protesters by security forces in June,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has neither respected the rights of his citizens nor the rule of law in his country.”
In the most recent incident, protesters continued to criticize the government for failing to release detailed results from the May elections prompting a harsh response by police. The Associated Press reported that citizens are being targeted indiscriminately by police. In addition to at least 33 persons killed in the clashes – including two policemen – more than 150 people were injured. One of the injured was a seven-year-old boy who was shot by police.
The continuing unrest amongst Ethiopia’s 72 million citizens began after the May 15th legislative elections. Partial results showed that the opposition parties won nearly 200 seats in the 547-seat lower house of Parliament and may have won far more. However, the official government results, finally released in September, showed that the major oppositions groups – the CUD and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) – won 175 seats and the ruling coalition won 360 of the seats. Eleven seats were won by other political parties, and one result has not been made official. The government has not released full results on the number of registered voters or the number of ballots used to confirm the validity of elections results.
The government of Ethiopia has demanded that the political opposition sign a letter accepting the results of the May elections before allowing citizens to peacefully voice their views on the matter. Opposition leaders postponed previous protests, but said they reserved the right to take all legal actions to contest disputed election results. It remains unknown whether the opposition officially called this week’s protests. Nevertheless, the government has announced legal action against the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) for “masterminding the street violence.”
Opposition party members have refused to take their seats in Parliament because of a change in legislative procedure that places the minority party at an extreme disadvantage. The political opposition and the international community have protested the change, which requires a party to control 51% of the seats in order to place any item on the Parliament’s agenda.
Over the past several weeks, the government of Ethiopia has arrested more than 1,000 opposition political party members and supporters, including the arrests this week of Ethiopian party leaders such as Engineer Hailu Shawal, Dr. Behanu Nega, Dr. Hailu Araya and Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam.
“Many of the people arrested by the government of Ethiopia for protesting the conduct of the May elections are being held without charge and continue to be held without trial – in complete disregard of their due process rights,” Smith said.