The State Department said Thursday the United States is very disappointed over the Ethiopian government's announced expulsion of three U.S. non-governmental democracy groups. They had been helping prepare the African country for elections in May.
The State Department says it has lodged a direct complaint with the Ethiopian government over its decision to expel the three groups, which had been working on a U.S.-sponsored program to lay groundwork for the country's May 15th general elections.
The groups are the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. The latter two are affiliated with the U.S. Republican and Democratic Parties.
News reports from Addis Ababa said their staff members, who had been in Ethiopia for several weeks, were told by government officials Wednesday they had 48 hours to leave.
The reason given for the move was that they had not been registered with the Ethiopian government.
But at a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said they had been operating openly with the knowledge of the government, and that their efforts to get proper accreditation had been rebuffed by officials.
"These three groups have worked diligently and very closely with various government of Ethiopia ministries to try to register, and they've worked with the National Election Board of Ethiopia," said Mr. Boucher. "And so they've tried to get registration and they haven't been able to secure it. So frankly we find this decision disappointing. We've expressed that directly to the Ethiopian government."
Mr. Boucher said other non-governmental groups working in Ethiopia on the elections have also not been able to register.
Officials here would not speculate on any underlying motives for the Ethiopian decision beyond the stated reason for the expulsion.
But some of the affected workers said they believed they were being expelled in retaliation for U.S. criticism of Ethiopia in the State Department's annual report on human rights world-wide issued in late February.
That report credited Ethiopia with progress on human rights in 2004, but said among other things that the country's police continued to use excessive force, and that freedom of the press was restricted.
The May 15 elections, for a national parliament and regional assemblies, are only the third of their kind in the country's history.
The previous two have been swept by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Movement, which along with affiliated parties controls all but a handful of seats in the 548-member parliament.
A spokesman for the 14-party opposition coalition, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, said the expulsion of the U.S. democracy workers was a very bad sign, and an indication of a lack of seriousness by the ruling party in making the election free and fair.
The three U.S. groups had been working under a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to train voters and election observers and promote election cooperation among the Ethiopian parties.