Ethiopia upset by U.S. bill

By Brian Blackwell
Washington Times
August 23, 2007
WASHINGTON DC - Ethiopian officials are disturbed by legislation pending in Congress that would restrict military assistance and travel to the United States by certain Ethiopian officials unless President Bush certifies that the Addis Ababa government is acting to address specific human rights concerns.

The Ethiopians argue that it is unfair to lump them in with countries like North Korea and Iran at a time when their troops are acting as allies in the war on terrorism, defending an interim government in neighboring Somalia against Islamist extremists.

"This would be the fatal blow to cooperating security arrangements between the United States and Ethiopia," said Samuel Assefa, Ethiopian ambassador to the United States. "Ethiopia is a vital ally to the U.S. in this region in the fight against terrorism. The bill could cut off economic and bilateral aid at a most inopportune time."

The legislation known as H.R. 2003 was proposed by Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey Democrat, and is backed by members of the Ethiopian community in Washington, most of whom support the main opposition party in Addis Ababa and remain angry over the outcome of a May 2005 parliamentary election.

Shortly after the election in which the opposition party won an unprecedented number of seats but not enough to defeat Prime Minister Meles Zenawi violent protests erupted, leading to a government crackdown.

The government admitted its security forces arrested about 30,000 protesters and killed 193 civilian protesters, but denied excessive force was used. Many more were arrested and have been held in many cases until recently.

Mr. Assefa argued in an interview at The Washington Times that his government was addressing the problem. Last weekend, the government reported that 32 members and supporters of the opposition coalition were released.

Another 38 prisoners had been freed three weeks earlier, and Mr. Assefa said only one political prisoner who signed a plea requesting a pardon remains jailed because his court case is still pending.

Under the country's legal system, Mr. Assefa said, "a plea for a pardon can only be considered after a conviction and sentencing is passed."

However leaders of a local support group, Coalition for H.R. 2003, contends the Ethiopian government is using the political prisoners as "pawns in its shell game with the U.S. Congress."

"Every time the bill is scheduled for markup [by a full House committee], the regime touts out a hapless bunch of political prisoners and threatens the U.S. that they will not be released if the House Foreign Affairs Committee marks up H.R. 2003," said Alemayehu Mariam, member of the Coalition for H.R. 2003.

"The bottom line on the ruling regime's opposition to H.R. 2003 is that it is incapable of making a morally and politically convincing case against the bill in its entirety, or any of its provisions," Mr. Mariam said.

"So it has to resort to the thuggish tactic of strong-arming members of Congress and holding the freedom of innocent political prisoners in the balance."

While the Ethiopian government questions the timing of the bill, Noelle LuSane, staff director for the subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, emphasized there was a two-year gap between the time the 193 protesters were killed and the bill's introduction in April.

"The government had plenty of time to resolve the issue," Ms. LuSane said. "So Congressman Payne does not feel the government should have been given more time, as they had two years to fix the problem."