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ETHIOPIA: Rights group accuses gov't of suppressing opposition

ADDIS ABABA, 10 May 2005 (IRIN) - Political dissent in Ethiopia’s most populous region is being quashed by the government, thereby compromising the integrity of the 15 May elections, a human rights group said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said systematic repression in Oromiya region, where one-third of the country’s 71-million population lives, makes next week’s elections a "hollow exercise".

"The political freedoms required for elections to be a meaningful exercise of citizens’ fundamental right to participate in the selection of their government do not exist for many Ethiopians," the New York-based organisation said.

"In Oromiya, systematic political repression and pervasive human rights violations have denied citizens the freedom to associate and to freely form and express their political ideas," it added. "As a result, on election day, most voters there are unlikely to be presented with real choices."

The government dismissed the claims made in the 44-page report entitled, "Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromiya Region".

"Human Rights Watch is blind to all the democratic processes taking place in Ethiopia," Bereket Simon, the information minister, told IRIN. "This organisation is bent, as usual, and politically motivated. It ignores the facts on the ground. This report is a pack of lies."

The minister said a mass opposition rally attended by more than 250,000 people on Sunday was testament to the democratic reforms taking place in the country.

"The Ethiopian people have taken the elections into their own hands and have displayed a very responsible and clear commitment to the democratic process," Bereket added.

Ethiopia has more than 77 different ethnic groups, many with their own languages.

"The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of HRW’s Africa division, said. "But in the run-up to the elections, the authorities have intensified the repression they have used to keep themselves in power for 13 years."

HRW said government and security forces had used exaggerated concerns about armed insurgency and "terrorism" to justify the torture, imprisonment and sustained harassment of their critics and even ordinary citizens in the central region of Oromiya.

The ethnic-based party that controls the region, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation, holds the largest share of parliamentary seats within the four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991.

"For more than a decade, the region’s ruling Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation has sought to solidify its grip on power by punishing dissenters and intimidating others into silence," the report added. "So far, these abuses have been largely ignored by the international community."

The report was based on a three-week HRW mission in March 2005 to the capital Addis Ababa and towns in Oromia’s East Shewa, West Shewa, East Wollega, West Wollega and Jimma zones. HRW interviewed about 115 people; just over half were farmers from rural districts in Oromiya.

Theme (s): Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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