- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Prime Minister Meles Zenawi bluntly defended his government’s crackdown on dissenters, saying the trial of 131 opponents beginning today would vindicate his administration’s tough actions.

The 131 politicians, writers and activists “have been charged with crimes, and this is the normal process of the court,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times. He urged his critics to listen to the evidence against the defendants, who face charges that include genocide, treason and undermining the constitution.

Human rights groups, Western governments and Ethiopians abroad have been harshly critical of Mr. Meles, accusing him of jailing thousands and killing many more since protests erupted over elections last year.

In the interview on Tuesday, Mr. Meles rejected those complaints with a common barnyard expletive and accused the West of having a “double standard” on human rights. He also denounced a “campaign of vilification” by vocal groups of Ethiopians living abroad.

Last weekend, security forces arrested a dozen people and accused them of plotting to blow up political targets. The state-run Ethiopian News Agency said the suspects were “linked” to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), an umbrella group for four major opposition parties.

The ring “planned to carry out attacks on certain buildings and public persons around Addis Ababa,” Mr. Meles said, without offering specifics. “It is clear that this was a last-ditch attempt by CUD figures to create instability in Addis.”

Western diplomats said it was impossible to assess the threat presented by the suspects but speculated that the arrests would allow the government to tighten security ahead of the court appearance today.

The Ethiopian government — led by Mr. Meles since his ethnic Tigrean group succeeded communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 — has attracted harsh criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups that monitor civil liberties.

Their investigators say that as many as 40,000 people have been arrested since the May 2005 elections, in which the opposition parties — including members of the largest, Amharic-speaking ethnic group — made strong gains but claimed to have been robbed of an outright victory.

Major protests in June and November turned violent, leaving 84 persons dead, many at the hands of police.

The crackdown led the European Union and World Bank to rechannel about $375 million worth of development assistance to a number of specialized agencies of the United Nations for distribution to the Ethiopian people through nongovernmental groups.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested last week that the Meles government might have had an “overreaction” to the strong showing by opposition parties.

Speaking softly and choosing his words carefully, Mr. Meles complained of being scolded by governments that do not have strong human rights records themselves.

“Frankly, some of the requests of some of our partners are incompatible” with their actions, Mr. Meles said. “We don’t agree with that, and we have told them so. But we have agreed to agree on the issues on which we agree and to disagree on the others.”

In Washington, Ethiopian opposition groups have peppered the State Department with appeals and rallies calling for the isolation of the Meles government, including the reduction of direct assistance. They say the government has been silencing all forms of dissent.

Mr. Meles responded, “There are many opposition members in Parliament, and they criticize the government all day, quite freely.”

Journalists, however, have had a tough time. In the weeks after the elections, several independent newspapers were shut down and members of their staffs were jailed.

The imprisoned journalists include the publisher of three respected Amharic-language papers and a pregnant Internet journalist who was detained because she did not have the proper press credentials from the Ministry of Information.

Five reporters for the popular Voice of America-Amharic service have been charged in absentia and are living abroad.

Around the same time, police raided the CUD office in Addis Ababa, seizing hundreds of videotapes, thousands of cassette tapes and computers that will be used as evidence in the trial.

U.S. diplomats have remained publicly supportive of the government but say they have not seen evidence that would back the most serious of the charges — genocide and treason. Working in favor of the Meles government is that Ethiopia has the largest population in the Horn of Africa and the government has firmly committed itself to fighting terrorism in that region.

Attorneys for the defendants — who include most of the top CUD leadership — say they will not speak in court, even if they are compelled to appear.

“They will not plead, because they do not recognize the legal authority of the court,” said a lawyer who has worked with several opposition figures. “They say this is a puppet court, a kangaroo court; and they will not respond.”

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