By Barry Malone, ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Sept 10 (Reuters) – A coalition of opposition parties accused the Ethiopian authorities on Thursday of arresting some of its members on trumped up charges to stop them running in an election scheduled for next May.
Eight parties have allied under the banner of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (FDDE) to contest the 2010 polls, which analysts say the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is likely to win.
Opposition figures say they have been crippled by a campaign of arrests, imprisonments and constant intimidation.
The EPRDF denies that.
“Ruling party cadres throughout the country are jailing our potential candidates on false charges,” Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, a party in the opposition coalition, told reporters in capital Addis Ababa.
“We want to negotiate with the government and ask them to stop arresting and jailing our potential candidates.”
The parties that make up the alliance hold just 80 of parliament’s 547 seats, but still represent the most significant opposition to a government that is a close ally of Washington.
Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information, told Reuters that since none of the parties had yet named their candidates, the opposition’s claims were premature.
“Nobody is being jailed for being a politician,” he said.
Several armed groups oppose the government in the huge Horn of Africa nation of more than eighty ethnicities. Nine men were convicted for between 10 and 17 years on Thursday for raising money and buying weapons for Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
The OLF has been fighting for independence for the southern Oromo region since 1993 and is accused of bombing Addis Ababa numerous times since then. But the FDDE says the rebels are used as an excuse to arrest opposition politicians.
“The authorities plant documents in potential politicians’ houses, trying to relate them to rebel groups like the OLF or the ONLF,” Bulcha said. “They are simply potential candidates. This may sound bizarre but this is the truth.”
Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005 were hailed as the country’s first fully democratic polls, but they ended in bloodshed after the government declared victory and the opposition said the result had been rigged. Police and soldiers killed about 200 people who took to the streets to protest.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused the demonstrators of trying to topple his government, and more than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers were later jailed.
Those detainees were pardoned and freed in 2007, but rights groups say the government is cracking down on dissent again. One opposition party leader is in jail and a group of former military officers have been convicted of plotting to oust Meles.
Meles has set up talks with the opposition about drawing up a code of conduct for next year. But the FDDE said on Thursday that its members had walked out of discussions.
“The code of conduct assumes a context where there will be independent administration of elections, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, no intervention by security forces,” said Seye Abraha, a former defence minister who is now in the FDDE.
“We want these issues discussed alongside the code of conduct, not assumed.”
Bereket dismissed FDDE claims the code was undemocratic.
“This code of conduct is being drawn up by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, not the Ethiopian government,” he told Reuters. “To walk away from it is disastrous and is to walk away from democracy.” (Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse; editing by David Clarke)