By Barry Malone, ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Two Ethiopian opposition leaders are being held by police after meeting an Amnesty International delegation and foreign reporters investigating rights abuses, their party said late on Wednesday.
The government says they are “terrorism” suspects who can be held for 28 days without charge on suspicion of being linked to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels, who have fought since 1993 for more autonomy for the coffee-growing Oromia region.
Ethiopia introduced anti-terrorism legislation last year that has been criticised by foreign rights groups and Western donors.
Party officials from Ethiopia’s main opposition coalition, Medrek, told Reuters that the men — Bekele Gerba who is deputy leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and Olvana Lalesa who is chief of office for the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) — had last week met a delegation from international rights group Amnesty International.
Opposition officials told Reuters the men may have co-operated with a BBC investigation into food aid being denied to members of the opposition in the Horn of Africa country.
“On Saturday, government security people arrested them,” Negaso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia and senior Medrek official, told Reuters.
“The OFDM and the OPC have recently made allegations about arrests in the Oromia region and about the situation of hunger in Ethiopia. People have died and the government does not like this.”
A government spokesman said the police had evidence the men were cooperating with the outlawed OLF.
“Bekele Gerba and his accomplices were arrested on suspicion that they have been involved in terrorist activities organised by the OLF,” said spokesman Shimeles Kemal.
“Their arrest has nothing do with any other reason except they are involved in terrorism.”
AMNESTY SAYS EXPELLED
Amnesty International confirmed on Wednesday its delegation had met both men last week. It said in a statement its team was expelled the same day the politicians were arrested.
The government spokesman said allegations that the men were arrested for talking to Amnesty International were an “unfounded fabrication”. He could not confirm that the rights group had been asked to leave.
Opposition politicians and rights group Human Rights Watch have accused Ethiopia of cracking down on opposition campaigners from the Oromo ethnic group. Ethiopia’s biggest with 27 million people out of a population of 80 million.
The government said it had arrested 121 Oromos in March after accusing them of being OLF members.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is Washington’s closest ally in the Horn of Africa but has been criticised by rights groups for crushing dissent. Meles says “terrorists” are using political party membership to hide their activities.
Oromia produces most of the coffee in Africa’s biggest grower, along with oil seeds, sesame and livestock, which are all major exports.