Ethiopia charges 32 with plot to topple government

Ethiopia Coup PlotADDIS ABABA, June 8 (Reuters) By Barry Malone – Ethiopia on Monday charged 32 people with planning to kill government officials and blow up public utilities to provoke street protests and bring down the government, relatives of the accused said.

“They appeared in court today and were officially charged,” a relative, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters. “Next Monday they will appear again to discuss bail.”

The government says the accused, arrested more a month ago, are mostly former and serving military officers from a “terror network” formed by Berhanu Nega, an opposition leader who teaches economics at a university in the United States.

Berhanu has called the accusations “baseless”.

“The charges can be summed up as conspiring to kill government officials and demolish public utilities,” the Ethiopian government’s head of information Bereket Simon told reporters last week.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had been hailed as part of a new generation of democratic African leaders after coming to power in 1991, but rights groups say the former rebel is increasingly cracking down on opposition.

Opposition parties routinely accuse the government of harassment and say their candidates were intimidated during local elections in April last year, which the government denies. Ethiopia will hold national elections in June 2010.

The government has identified only two of the prisoners despite calls by international rights groups that it give the names of all 32. Another 14 people, some resident in the United States and Britain, have been charged in absentia.

The assassinations and bombings were supposed to provoke street protesters to march on state buildings and try to overthrow the government, Bereket said.

Security forces killed about 200 protesters after elections in 2005 when the opposition disputed the government’s victory.

Berhanu was elected mayor of the capital Addis Ababa in that ballot, but was arrested and accused of orchestrating the street protests. He was pardoned and released in 2007.

Berhanu’s May 15th organisation is named after the date of the 2005 poll. He has made statements in the United States saying it wants to overthrow the government.

The Ethiopian government says the plotters received money to buy weapons from Berhanu and other diaspora opposition members. (Editing by David Clarke and Andrew Dobbie)