Ethiopian leader targets Make Poverty History in mass clampdown on dissent

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An Ethiopian court has charged 131 politicians, journalists and activists with treason and genocide as the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, continues to suppress all dissenting voices in the country.

Two campaigners for the Make Poverty History movement are among the defendants. Daniel Bereket, the head of policy for ActionAid in Ethiopia and Netsanet Demessie of the Organisation for Social Justice in Ethiopia, have been charged with two counts of treason. If found guilty, they could face life imprisonment.

ActionAid claims the men were arrested in November for doing their job as anti-poverty campaigners, and have done nothing illegal.

Brian Kagoro, head of policy for ActionAid Africa, said: "Neither Daniel nor Netsanet are anti-state. They may have been critical of the government's progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, but they are not political activists, and they are not members of the opposition."

Others charged include the leader of the opposition, Hailu Shawel, elected members of parliament and Ethiopian journalists.

Mr Zenawi, an ally of Tony Blair and a member of his Commission for Africa, has accused the defendants of causing the riots that spread through the capital, Addis Ababa, after the general election on 15 May.

Many of those charged have also been accused of genocide; the charge sheet claims members of the opposition party, the CUD, tried to isolate the Tigrayan people, who are supporters of Mr Zenawi's ruling party, the EPRDF. The charges relate to criticisms by the CUD about the ethnic composition of the ruling party, and a manifesto promise to change Ethiopia's constitution, which divides the country into ethnically determined regions, and replace it with a new national system.

Mr Zenawi has said he will leave it to the courts to decideif any guilty defendants are put to death or imprisoned for life. All those who appeared in court were denied bail and will appear again on 28 December.

Ethiopia has already attracted widespread condemnation for the way it has dealt with the aftermath of its general election, the third multi-party election in the country. The CUD accused the government of rigging elections and falsifying results. The protests led to rioting that left 42 people dead in June. Others died in clashes with security forces last month.

Human rights groups say police used live ammunition to disperse protesters.

Since the riots in June, Mr Meles has closed five newspapers, jailed their editors and arrested 40,000 people. Most of those taken into custody were held for a few weeks, but about 3,000 are still in detention. Two foreign radio stations, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, were also taken off the air for broadcasting critical reports.

Britain has already frozen £50m of aid amid concerns about governance, and Lord Triesman, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, said the UK was reviewing its entire £90m aid package to the country.

Mr Zenawi accused the CUD of fomenting the violence, and trying to overthrow the government with the riots.

His supporters also say many in the CUD leadership have only recently returned to Ethiopia after years of exile, and still receive funding from Ethiopians living overseas.

In a reference to Ukraine's dramatic change of government, Mr Zenawi said: "This is not your run-of-the-mill demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution gone wrong."

The EPRDF has also pointed out that many of the CUD leadership, including Mr Shawel, worked for the brutal Derg dictatorship, which was overthrown by Mr Zenawi's forces in 1991.

Before his arrest, Mr Shawel told The Independent: "I didn't come back for politics, I came back to live here and run my company. I changed my mind mid-stream after people approached me and appealed to me to get involved. Ethiopian culture is a gun culture.

"We have never had a change of government without the use of the gun, and we want to show that we don't need to use the gun any more to get change."