Testimony at a House Foreign Relations Sub-Committee hearing on March 25 was harshly critical of Ethiopia’s democratic reforms and urged the government to increase efforts for a free and fair May 23 national election.
"I am deeply concerned and troubled about the deteriorating conditions in Ethiopia," said Congressman Donald Payne, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. "The EPRDF regime is becoming increasingly totalitarian."
The Ethiopian government, which has for more than 19 years been dominated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is a U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa and enjoys strong political and foreign-aid support from America. However, the criticism in the subcommittee reflected several human rights reports critical of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Government spokesmen have consistently denied these reports, often calling them “fabrications.”
Ethiopian government officials declined to comment on Congressman Payne's remarks and Human Rights Watch's allegations of rights abuse.
In other testimony that day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson was emphatic in describing what he U.S. expects from Ethiopia’s national elections. "We certainly do not want to see the violence that we saw five years ago," Ambassador Carson said. He urged Ethiopia's ruling and opposition parties to "act responsibly" in their campaign messages.
In the elections of 2005, more than 200 protesting opposition supporters were shot dead in the streets of Addis Ababa and thousands jailed without trial. Among them was a young lawyer, Birtukan Mideksa, who was pardoned two years later and rose to lead one of the major opposition parties in Ethiopia. Last year she was arrested again and now serves a life sentence. Some supporters are concerned about her health now and have held protests and vigils in many countries to seek her release.
Meles told a recent press conference that Birtukan is in perfect health. However, a recent U.S. State Department human rights report says Birtukan "languishes in prison with deteriorating health conditions following her re-arrest. "Other rights groups have echoed concerns about harassment of political opponents. The Ethiopian government has been harshly critical of these and State Department human rights reports.
Last week, the prime minister announced his decision to authorize the jamming of VOA signals to Ethiopia and compared VOA’s Amharic broadcasts to Radio Mille Collines, the radio station believed responsible for launching the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
After the hearing, Assistant Secretary Carson told VOA, "This is deeply troubling, deeply unfortunate. The Voice of America does not stand for that. The Voice of America does not do that, and the United States would never support genocide of any sort."