Ethiopia accused of crackdown ahead of vote

Ethiopia’s government is waging a coordinated attack on rights activists, journalists and political opponents ahead of the country’s national elections in May, a leading human rights group said on Wednesday.

Some radio broadcasts from the Voice of America were jammed by the government earlier this month, and the country’s most prominent independent newspaper was shut down late last year, said New York-based Human Rights Watch, which presented its report in neighbouring Kenya. Journalists and activists have fled the country recently because of government repression, the report said.

“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 into silence,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Attempts to reach Ethiopian officials for comment were not successful.

Since country’s last general elections in 2005, the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has systematically punished opposition supporters, Human Rights Watch said. Today, it is punishing critical voices and putting pressure on all state employees, especially teachers, to join the ruling party.

The US State Department said in a report this month that prior to local elections in April 2008, ruling party members and supporters used “coercive tactics and manipulation of the electoral process, including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters”.

‘Unable to speak freely’
After winning the local elections, the ruling party consolidated its control over villages and district administrations and ruled with an iron grip, the report said. Following those elections, residents in districts visited by Human Rights Watch reported that government officials and militia members monitored households for signs of dissent.

Local administrations withheld government services as a way of punishing those who criticised the government or did not support the ruling party, it said.

“Ethiopians are unable to speak freely, organise political activities, and challenge their government’s policies — whether through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views — without fear of reprisal,” said the report.

Human Rights Watch said the US, UK, EU and the World Bank — the country’s principal donors — have been timid in their criticism of Ethiopia’s deteriorating human rights situation.

Ethiopia considers itself a close ally of the US, and consulted with American officials before sending troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006.

But the landlocked Horn of Africa nation has a long history of human rights abuses and flawed elections. Government security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged fraud in the 2005 general elections, which the EU said were flawed. — Sapa-AP

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