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38 opposition politicians and activists released after Ethiopian government pardon

Ethiopia freed 38 opposition members following international
condemnation of the two-year case and the country’s history of human rights

The pardons came Friday, after the United States urged
Ethiopia a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa to show clemency. The defendants
had been held since 2005 in connection with deadly election protests.

The politicians and activists left prison in a convoy of
minibuses minutes after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced they had been
pardoned, sparking cheers and whistles from dozens of opposition supporters
outside Kaliti Prison.

“I hope this conveys the message that people are given
a second chance as long as they seek it,” Meles said.

The defendants, who sent formal apologies to the government
seeking pardons, were sentenced this week to prison terms, including life, for
inciting violence in an attempt to overthrow Meles’ administration. Prosecutors
had been pushing for the death penalty.

Hailu Shawel, leader of the opposition Coalition for Unity
and Democracy, was defiant after his release, saying he signed the apology
under duress.

“I don’t even call it a trial,” Hailu said Friday
from his home, where relatives were celebrating. “It was a show.”

Meles denied that his country was acting on U.S. orders to
free the opposition members. Ethiopia is a close American ally in the Horn of
Africa, an area that U.S. officials say is a haven for al-Qaida. Ethiopia sent
troops to neighboring Somalia in December, providing vital military aid to oust
a radical Islamic movement accused of links to the terror group.

“Ethiopia, this government and this country, are
incapable, unwilling and unable to be run like some kind of banana republic
from Capitol Hill or anywhere else,” Meles said.

Those pardoned Friday include Berhanu Nega, who was elected
mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 but was unable to serve because he was sent to
jail; former Harvard scholar Mesfin Woldemariam; and former U.N. special envoy
and a former professor at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, Yacob

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary
seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Meles. The opposition claimed
the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said they were marred by

Late last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces
killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud but insisted they did
not use excessive force. A senior judge appointed to investigate the violence
had accused the security forces of excessive force.

“They (the government) are worse than they were two
years ago,” Hailu said. “They don’t change, these people. They want
to cover their loses. They know they lost an election. We know we won.”

Initially, the opposition leaders, journalists and others
were charged with treason, inciting violence and attempted genocide. Judges
dropped the treason and attempted genocide charges in April and later that
month freed 25 prisoners, among them eight journalists.

Earlier this week in Washington, a House subcommittee
completed work on legislation that decries Ethiopia’s recent human rights
record and opens the door for sanctions. The subcommittee’s approval would be a
first major step, but the bill still would have to be passed by both houses and
signed by President George W. Bush.

On Tuesday, Barry F. Lowenkron, the U.S. assistant secretary
of state for democracy and human rights, gave sometimes harsh testimony on
Ethiopia before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

He spoke of the illegal detention of “opposition
leaders and tens of thousands of their supporters” and said: “To this
day, the crackdown casts a shadow over the Ethiopian government.”

Lowenkron said he had spent 85 minutes of a 90-minute
conversation with Meles in March discussing the state of democracy in Ethiopia,
and Meles said he would make changes “because it’s in the interest of the
people of Ethiopia.”

“I told him it should be in the interest of all the
people of Ethiopia, including those that are in prison and need to be let
out,” Lowenkron said.

– Associated Press

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