Ethiopia is accused of 'torturing and illegally jailing opponents of regime'

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The Independent Online

Ethiopia is conducting a systematic campaign of intimidation, detention and torture against political opponents of its increasingly autocratic government, human rights groups have alleged.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a celebrated ally of the US administration in its "war on terror" and previously invited to sit on Tony Blair's Africa Commission, has become increasingly blatant in his suppression of opposition.

At least 40 opposition supporters in the country have been held in prison since December where torture has become commonplace, according to evidence from Amnesty International.

None of the detainees being held in Addis Ababa's Maikelawi prison have been allowed to see family members or lawyers and released suspects say prison guards routinely torture inmates.

The opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) also claimed several of their supporters had been shot dead in a series of extra-judicial killings.

Those held include a 23-year-old IT student called Endalkachew Melese who was arrested on 15 December in Addis Ababa. His family has been allowed to bring him food but have not been able to see him. Despite being taken to court, he is yet to be formally charged. Mr Melese, like the others held with him, is a supporter of the CUD.

Mr Meles was once the poster boy for good governance in Africa and feted only two years ago by the West as one of Africa's brightest democratic leaders. Since then, his star has fallen rapidly.

Mr Meles first changed the constitution to allow himself to seek a third term as prime minister and the subsequent elections in May 2005 were marred by allegations of fraud.

Mr Meles and the opposition claimed victory and the prime minister called in the security forces to quell unrest. Several thousand suspected government opponents were arrested after demonstrations in Addis Ababa in 2005. Police and security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing 187 and wounding 765.

There are currently 76 opposition leaders and journalists standing trial for treason and "attempted genocide". Their trial, which has been condemned by human rights campaigners and EU nations, including Britain, is set to resume on 19 February.

There is a sense of fear on the streets of Addis Ababa when the subject of politics is raised. Martin Hill, Amnesty International's Ethiopia expert, said: "We are very concerned that members of an opposition party are being held incommunicado and possibly on fabricated charges. They are clearly at risk of torture and ill treatment and that is why we have appealed to the authorities."

The Ethiopian government denied any opposition supporters had been arrested. Bereket Simon, an adviser to the prime minister, said: "We have arrested people related to the terror plot only," a reference to the allegation that Ethiopia's bitter rival, Eritrea, attempted to plant a bomb during last month's African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

"No opposition supporters have been arrested," he said. "It is simply unfounded." As Mr Meles' democratic credentials have taken a battering, he has sought the backing of the West, particularly the United States, in fighting the "war on terror".

A coalition of Islamists took control of much of Ethiopia's neighbour, Somalia, last year, prompting fears in the US administration that the war-ravaged failed state was becoming a safe haven for would-be al-Qa'ida terrorists. Mr Meles portrayed himself as America's sole ally in the Horn of Africa and the US gave him tacit approval to launch an attack on Somalia's Islamists.

Britain has made it clear it no longer sees Mr Meles as a democratic leader. Britain's International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, announced last year that the Government would no longer provide aid direct to the Ethiopian government.

"Tony Blair was personally betrayed by what Meles did," said Amdargachew Tsege, a leader of the CUD. "The crackdown on the democracy movement was savage. When Mr Blair saw him in South Africa, he looked at him as if he was a piece of something. They are not supportive of Meles but, just like the Americans, Britain has its own interest of fighting against terror. All other issues take second place."

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