The State Department said Friday the United States remains gravely concerned about a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in Ethiopia. About 130 people perceived as opponents of the government have been accused of treason, including five Ethiopian-born Voice of America staff members based in Washington.
The U.S. statement reflects growing worry about the situation in Ethiopia, where scores of opposition figures, aid workers and journalists were charged last month with treason and plotting to overthrow the government.
The charges, some of which could bring a death penalty, were filed in connection with lethal violence in the capital, Addis Ababa, last June, following the disputed May 15 election that kept Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in power.
In a written statement, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States remains gravely concerned over the actions of the Meles government against the accused, who he said were denied bail and the opportunity to make a statement during a court hearing Friday.
He said thousands more Ethiopians arrested since early November remain detained without charge.
Mr. McCormack said the United States calls on Ethiopian authorities to ensure a fair, transparent and speedy trial for those charged, to promptly charge or release those still held without charge, and to give those detained unimpeded access to legal counsel and their families.
The spokesman said a vibrant opposition, independent media and a robust civil society are essential to any democracy, and said the United States looks to the Ethiopian government to provide them the political space necessary for them to function.
He further said steps that appear to criminalize dissent impede progress on democratization, and that all sides must reject violence and abide by the rule of law.
At the same time, Mr. McCormack said Ethiopia remained a valued partner for the United States, and commended the government and opposition parties in parliament for their dialogue.
He said the sides should continue working to assure that the opposition can take its seats in parliament and manage the city of Addis Ababa, and well as effectively debate and legislate in the parliament.
The official election results, disputed by the opposition, left Mr. Meles' ruling party in control of parliament though opposition parties scored gains in the capital area and swept municipal voting there.
The five Voice of America employees accused in the case work in Washington and were charged in absentia. In a statement last month, VOA Director David Jackson said the charges are false and an obvious attempt to intimidate VOA broadcasters.
He said Voice of America, one of the more popular international broadcasters into Ethiopia, has a world-wide reputation for the quality and reliability of its journalism and said VOA stands by its reporters.
In a VOA interview Thursday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto said he has raised U.S. concerns about the crackdown directly with Prime Minister Meles.
He said the Meles government has assured the United States it will protect human rights and the rule of law during the trials.