Ethiopia condemned as opposition leaders are put on trial for treason

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The Independent Online

Dozens of Ethiopian opposition leaders accused of plotting to overthrow the government appeared in court charged with treason and attempted genocide in a trial condemned by human rights groups as "absurd."

Dressed in sombre black clothing with their hands clapped over their mouths in protest at the charges, 111 opposition leaders, independent journalists and civil rights activists were accused of conspiring with Eritrean-backed rebels to spark violent clashes in the aftermath of last year's elections. Critics of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government say that the poll was rigged.

The defendants, described by Amnesty International as "prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence," were charged with treason, inciting violence and attempting to commit genocide in December, after at least 80 people were killed in post-election violence between protesters and security forces.

The election and ensuing crackdown tarnished the reputation of Mr Meles, a former close ally of Tony Blair, prompting donors, including Britain and the European Union, to halt direct budgetary aid to the sub-Saharan African country.

The prosecutor, Shimeles Kemal, said yesterday: "We will present audio, video, documents and human witnesses to prove that leaders of the opposition, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and some journalists were guilty of treason and attempted genocide against supporters of the government."

Human rights watchdogs have criticised the trial, with Amnesty International urging the Ethiopian government to free the defendants, including CUD chairman Hailu Shawel and the human rights campaigner Mesfin Wolde Mariam who, the organisation said, were on hunger strike.

"This... will be a crucial test of the independence and impartiality of the Ethiopian judiciary," said the director of Amnesty International's Africa programme, Kolawole Olaniyan. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, also called last week for the release on bail of the detainees.

The Ethiopian ambassador to London, Berhanu Kebede, yesterday denied the trial called into question Ethiopia's commitment to human rights. "These trials ... prove that the supremacy of law prevails and that the constitutional order is being upheld."