By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – The Ethiopian government is ramping up a campaign of intimidation against opposition politicians, journalists and rights activists ahead of national elections in May, a rights group said Wednesday.
The Horn of Africa country’s election will be the first since a government victory in 2005 was disputed by the opposition. About 200 street protesters were killed by security forces and the main opposition leaders imprisoned.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said they were trying to topple him.
New-York based Human Rights Watch said the government had arrested and imprisoned opposition politicians for varying terms since the 2005 poll.
“Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia,” Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Africa director, said in a statement.
“The ruling party and the state are becoming one and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people.”
One of the country’s most popular opposition leaders, Birtukan Mideksa, has been in prison for more than a year, accused of violating a pardon that released her and other opposition leaders jailed after the 2005 street violence.
The Ethiopian government dismissed the report.
“RIDICULOUS AND OUTRAGEOUS”
“There is no intimidation. This is a democracy,” Bereket Simon, government head of information, told Reuters. “We are continuously widening political space.”
Meles was hailed as one of a new generation of democratic African leaders in the 1990s but rights groups have increasingly criticized him for cracking down on opposition in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation.
Human Rights Watch accused the government of withholding seeds and fertilizers from poor Ethiopians to force them to join the ruling party. The organization said members of the civil service were also being pressured to join.
“Since 2005, state resources have also been used to press individuals to join the ruling party so that they can benefit from access to services, jobs, and economic activity,” said the 59-page report, citing more than 200 interviews in Ethiopia.
Bereket told Reuters the government had distributed seeds to more than 8 million Ethiopians — far exceeding the number of ruling party members.
“To say we prevent people from accessing seeds or fertilizer is ridiculous and outrageous,” Bereket said. “And civil service workers are free to join any party.”
Opposition politicians in the capital Addis Ababa backed the report Wednesday.
“The state resources are a big weapon,” Bulcha Demeksa, leader of one of the parties in Ethiopia’s main opposition coalition, Medrek, told Reuters.
“Our candidates who already work in the civil service, like teachers, are being transferred to very remote areas and refused time off to campaign.”
By Barry Malone