U.S. Congress, Bush administration exasperated by Ethiopian backsliding on democracy

By Associated Press
July 18, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) - Both the Bush administration and Congress are growing exasperated over Ethiopia's backsliding from democracy but are wary of applying too much pressure against a country that has become an important anti-terror ally in East Africa.

Members of the Democratic-controlled Congress are under fewer restraints than President George W. Bush's administration, which has relied on the help of Ethiopian troops in ousting Islamic militants from power in parts of neighboring Somalia.

In the House of Representatives, the Africa subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee is completing work Wednesday 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 of Congress and signed into law by Bush.

Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, the subcommittee's chairman, told The Associated Press he has had no response to his bill from White House officials, but "I think they would prefer if we just left it alone."

"This is not a punitive bill," he said. Any sanctions would kick in only if Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government does not return to democracy and restore human rights protections.

On Monday, a court in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa sentenced 35 opposition politicians and activists to life in prison and eight others to lesser terms for inciting violence in an attempt to overthrow the government. Judges threw out charges of treason and attempted genocide and rejected the government's recommendation for death sentences.

The Federal High Court trial began in December 2005 after the opposition organized protests following elections earlier that year that foreign observers said were badly flawed. The demonstrations were smashed by police, and scores were killed.

The defendants asked for pardons in a letter sent to Meles weeks before the sentences were announced. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Barry F. Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, said Meles announced Monday that he would recommend clemency. The announcement apparently was not made publicly.

The Bush administration has made spreading democracy a cornerstone of its foreign policy. But the administration has had to violate the principle more than once: refusing to deal with objectionable elected governments, such as that headed by the militant Islamic group Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It also has dealt with clearly undemocratic governments such as those in some former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

In an indication that even the administration has determined not to pull all its punches in Ethiopia, Lowenkron's testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee was relatively straightforward and at times harsh.

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. Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, who chaired the hearing, urged strong action to right the Ethiopian situation. "We cannot tolerate a country like that moving in the wrong direction if they want to have the relationship with us that they want to have and that we want to have with them," Feingold said.