Monday, February 06, 2006

Ethiopia's Meles rejects clemency for opposition facing trial

Ethiopia's Meles rejects clemency for opposition facing trial
Lea-Lisa Westerhoff
AFP
February 3, 2006

ADDIS ABABA -- Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Thursday rejected calls for the release for jailed opposition leaders accused of fomenting a coup after disputed elections last year and said that they face trial.

At the same time, Meles suggested that new elections might have to be held for the Addis Ababa city council, which was won by the opposition in the polls of May 2005, but has been unable to meet due to a boycott by the elected members.

In a speech to parliament, the prime minister said that conspiracy and treason charges would not be dropped for a group of 131 opposition figures, journalists and aid workers who have been detained since November.

"Interfering in the natural process of the rule of law and releasing those violent leaders would only prove to them that they can get away with anything," he said.

"It would give them the green light to do whatever they wish, assuring a situation where they will pursue their goal of dismantling the constitutional order by any means possible," Meles said.

He rejected calls for leniency to be shown to the group, which includes nearly the entire leadership of the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), and said that their release would accomplish nothing.

"This will by no means bring about stability," Meles said. "This is the reason why the government is determined to stand up to any pressure and to make the leaders of the CUD legally accountable."

A deadly crackdown on the opposition following two outbursts of election-related violence has drawn heavy international criticism and some foreign donors have responded by withholding direct aid to the government.

The CUD claims that the May elections were rigged by Meles' ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and called for public protests against the alleged fraud to demand new elections.

Demonstrations turned violent in June and November when police opened fire on unruly crowds in Addis Ababa and other towns during the protests, killing at least 84 people.

Meles has accused the opposition of trying to overthrow his government, which has been in power since 1991, but has come under fire for the prosecution of the CUD leaders who are next due to appear in court on February 23.

The accused have refused to plea to the charges but have denied all the allegations against them maintaining that they are politically motivated.

Human rights groups have called for the charges to be dropped but Meles rebuffed the appeals, saying that the opposition had been warned numerous times not to stage protests aimed at bringing down the government.

"We said time and again that their only guarantee was the rule of law and if they didn't abide by it, legal action would be taken against them and in that event no pressure from inside or outside would be of any consequence," he said.

In the midst of the election dispute, Addis Ababa has been run by a transitional authority as all seats on the city council were won by opposition candidates most of whom have refused to take up their posts.

Meles said that the situation was not sustainable, that the capital needed an elected government and suggested that if the elected councilors would not serve, new polls might have to be held.

"If those people who were elected refuse to honor the mandate given to them by the people, the only option left is to run another election," he said.

He added, however, that the government was weighing possible "adverse consequences" including unrest that a new election could bring.

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