By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – The Ethiopian government pledged on Wednesday to release an opposition parliamentarian who was arrested while campaigning in the country’s sensitive Oromia region ahead of national elections on Sunday.
The parliamentary and regional elections are the first since a disputed 2005 poll ended with street riots in which 193 protesters and seven policemen died.
Top opposition politicians were also jailed after the ruling party said they had provoked the violence to force an unconstitutional change of government.
“Asnaketch Balcha was arrested on Sunday and sentenced to six months on Tuesday for contempt of court,” said Negaso Gidada, a leader of the biggest opposition coalition, Medrek, and a former Ethiopian president.
“The government needs to release her immediately if it wants this election to continue,” Negaso told Reuters, adding that Asnaketch had immunity as an MP.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told Reuters the woman was a lawyer and had been arrested on an outstanding contempt of court charge.
“The court didn’t know she had parliamentary immunity and she didn’t invoke it,” Shimeles said. “We are now making every effort to secure her release.”
Asnaketch was elected to parliament in 2005 for the now disbanded opposition coalition, Kinijit, and has since joined Medrek, Negaso said.
Oromia is home to the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group with 27 million out of 80 million people. The area produces most of the coffee in Africa’s biggest grower, along with oil seeds, sesame and livestock.
The region has the most constituencies in the country and is seen by analysts as key to the future of Ethiopia, a country that is Washington’s main ally in the region and a growing destination for foreign direct investment.
Negaso said 10 young men who had been campaigning with the parliamentarian were taken to a police station and beaten.
“The police then took all their IDs, including their voting cards,” he said.
Six people have died in election violence in Oromia since campaigning began. Medrek, says two of the six dead were theirs, while the ruling party says it has lost one candidate and a policeman was killed.
Another two died when a grenade was lobbed into a meeting of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), part of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.