Official: Ethiopia arrests 35 for coup plot

ethio1By Anita Powell, Associated Press Writer  |  April 25, 2009

NAIROBI, Kenya —The Ethiopian government has arrested 35 people suspected of a coup attempt allegedly backed by an Ethiopian-American economist now teaching at a Pennsylvania university, an Ethiopian government spokesman said Saturday.

Government spokesman Ermias Legesse said the group, which calls itself “May 15” after the date of controversial 2005 elections in Ethiopia, was led from the U.S. by former opposition leader Berhanu Nega, who teaches economics at Bucknell University. He is an assistant professor of economics, according to the Web site of the university in Lewisburg, Pa.

“It is the party led by Berhanu Nega,” said Ermias. “If he comes to Ethiopia, we’ll arrest him.”

He said the alleged coup plotters were arrested Friday.

Berhanu, an economist, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 but was arrested afterward along with more than 100 other opposition politicians and stood trial for treason. He and the others were freed in 2007 in a pardon deal. He left Ethiopia after the trial.

The group of suspects was comprised of two cliques, one of former soldiers, another of civilians, Ermias said.

“They were caught with weapons, uniforms, even plans,” he said. “I don’t want to give details about the plans; it’s for the court case.”

Ermias said the charges have not been set and court proceedings will begin soon.

“They decided to change the government in an unconstitutional way,” he said.

Berhanu could not be reached at his Bucknell University office Saturday and his home number is unlisted. University officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to his profile on the university’s Web site, Berhanu has urged the U.S. to back democratic movements in Ethiopia — the nation is controlled by one dominant political party — and to withdraw support for Ethiopia’s government.

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said it was marred by irregularities. The election was followed by violent protests in which Ethiopia acknowledged its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud.

Since 2005, there has been only one opposition-led political protest in Ethiopia, held this month in Addis Ababa.