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Ethiopian opposition leaders ask tougher U.S. stance

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Catholic San Francisco) - Two exiled Ethiopian opposition leaders are calling for a tougher U.S. stance toward their country, saying Ethiopia’s role as a wedge against radical Islam in the Horn of Africa is coming at too high a cost in internal repression.

Hailu Shawul, chairman of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, and Bedru Adem, an elected member of the CUD’s central committee in the capital of Addis Ababa, made the charge in separate interviews in San Francisco. They were visiting allies among Ethiopian émigrés and members of the Catholic community as part of a campaign in North America and Europe to step up international pressure on the Ethiopian government to implement democratic reforms.

The two politicians are trying to build support for HR 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007. The bill, which passed the House of Representatives last October, would reward the Ethiopian government with aid if it carries out democratic reforms and punish it by withdrawing financial support if it fails to comply. The bill also would provide U.S. aid for the rehabilitation of Ethiopian torture victims.

The measure has yet to be introduced in the Senate and, according to one group that opposes it, the Institute for Religion and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., would likely be vetoed by President Bush even if were to survive congressional debate.

An American moral quandary

The U.S. State Department maintains that although political freedoms in Ethiopia are limited they are wider than at any time in the nation’s history. While urging the Ethiopian government to ease restrictions on political action by opponents, the State Department notes that democracy in Ethiopia is embryonic and has emerged only since a new constitution was adopted in 1994.

But the two opposition political leaders said the U.S. government faces a moral quandary over its position on Ethiopia. The nation of 80 million is the Bush Administration’s strongest ally in the war on terror in the volatile Horn of Africa, yet the relationship requires tolerating a high level of repression within the country, they said.

“The Bush Administration supports the regime,” Bedru said. “They think they are against terrorism. But the government is terrorizing its own people day and night.”

Calls to the State Department and to the Ethiopian ambassador’s press office in Washington, D.C., to respond to the allegations were not returned.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cracked down on civil liberties in May 2005 following gains by the CUD in the first open, multi-party elections in the nation’s 3,000-year history. The Coalition won all 23 legislative seats in the capital – 170 of 547 nationwide -- and all but one of the 108 seats in the Addis Ababa city government. Shawul said the discovery of discarded ballot boxes in rural areas showed that the coalition’s popularity among all ethnic groups and in all regions was greater than the official results showed.

The regime declared a state of emergency the day before the results were to be counted, Bedru said. The action prompted a student uprising, quashed by the military in November 2005. The official death count was 193, although Shawul believes the actual number was much higher. In addition, 40,000 people were arrested, including Bedru, Shawul and other opposition leaders.

“Security men came to my home and beat me in front of my wife and children,” Bedru said. “When my children started crying, they tried to beat them.”

“They beat me from every corner,” said Bedru, 53, who had two teeth knocked out in the incident.

Shawul, 71, walks with a cane as a result of a back injury he suffered when he was thrown into his cell.

Freedom for prisoners, democracy for nation

International pressure forced the release of the two men and other political detainees, but thousands remain in prison for political activities. Bedru and Shawul plan to return to Ethiopia later this year to take up their leadership roles, help secure the release of the other prisoners and work toward a new round of elections.

Shawul stressed the importance of international support to the success of the mission. He noted that when he was released from confinement he was warned that if he offended again he would never get out of jail.

“He’s a national leader who’s putting his life on the line,” said George Wesolek, director of the Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “I think we should support that.”

Both men stressed that a change in U.S. policy is the most crucial step toward reforming the government. They said the regional security partnership with the United States is stifling Ethiopia’s many peaceable political groups from creating the more open society that voters endorsed in 2005.

Although the Horn of Africa is associated with ethnic and religious strife, including the recent outbreak of tribal bloodshed in Kenya, Bedru said Ethiopia has a history of religious tolerance. “There are no terror groups in Ethiopia,” he said. “Muslims and Christians are extremely liberal and know how to live together.”

Shawul argued that a free and prosperous Ethiopia cannot emerge unless the United States forces democratic reforms. And without a strong political culture and economy in Ethiopia, other nations in the Horn of Africa will have no constructive model, he said. Desperation will spread among the young, and U.S. security interests will be in peril, he predicted.

A free Ethiopia means simply this, Shawul said: “All the wars that America expects to have to fight will not have to be fought.”

Hope for the future

In 2005 and 2006, efforts by some House members to change U.S. policy toward Ethiopia in light of the post-election violence died before they reached the Senate. HR 2003 is the third attempt.

Joseph Griebowski, president of the Institute for Religion and Public Policy, a non-profit that focuses on religious freedom, opposes punishing Ethiopia. He said retribution would set back Ethiopia’s measured progress toward a more open society. He also noted that Ethiopia should not be punished after having served U.S. strategic interests by blocking insurgencies from neighboring Somalia.

Ethiopia is “less autocratic than Eritrea, more stable than Somalia, certainly less democratic than South Africa, light years more democratic than Sudan,” he said. “Yet they are interested in having the democratic process – in a managed and controlled process.”

Shawul said he must return to Ethiopia to attempt to implement the popular will expressed in 2005, but he confessed to a sense of unease. “The future looks at this point not so bright, but I believe we can push it forward to make it a little better for our children,” he said.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (www.catholic-sf.org),official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.

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