By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – An Ethiopian opposition leader convicted in absentia of belonging to a separatist rebel group has fled the country, party colleagues said on Thursday.
They said Bekele Jirata, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) who left while free on bail, was targeted as part of a pre-election crackdown on the country’s biggest ethnic group.
“I don’t believe he is guilty,” Bulcha Demeska, leader of the OFDM, told Reuters.
“There was little evidence. It was to crackdown on us, on an Oromo party, before the elections.”
A court sentenced Bekele to 12 years in jail for being a member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Another 15 Oromo men, some wealthy businessmen, were also convicted of OLF membership in the same case.
One man was sentenced to death, another to life in prison and the rest were given jail terms of 10 to 13 years without parole.
The OLF wants independence for Ethiopia’s Oromia region.
The OFDM and other Oromo parties say ruling party officials are intimidating and jailing prominent Oromos ahead of national elections on May 23.
The Horn of Africa country’s last election results in 2005 were challenged by the opposition and some international observers. About 200 protesters were killed by security forces in street riots and the main opposition leaders imprisoned. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said they were trying to oust him.
“There is no doubt the government clamps down heavy on educated Oromos,” Bulcha said.
“They think all Oromos sympathise with the OLF. It is not true. The OFDM does not want an independent Oromia. We want fairness for Oromos.”
The government denies targeting Oromos.
Oromos, who make up 27 million of Ethiopia’s 80 million people, have not held power in modern history. Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups.
Zenawi comes from the Tigrayan ethnic group, who make up 6 percent of the population and dominate the political and military elite.
Analysts expect the Meles government to win the election.