The United States is asking Ethiopia to grant clemency to 35 opposition members sentenced to life in prison for their role in election protests in 2005. Many people believe that the group will be freed; yet some in the opposition fear Ethiopia is far removed from true democracy two years after the bloody demonstrations. Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says clemency would help end a chapter of political turmoil and bring the Ethiopian people closer together. The 35 were sentenced Monday, while eight others received lesser sentences.
They are convicted of involvement in demonstrations two years ago in which hundreds of thousands of people protested the results of national elections. Almost 200 people, including six police officers, were killed during the protests.
The trials drew widespread criticism from Ethiopia's opposition, the international community and human rights groups. They accuse Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of using the courts to stifle his opponents.
The critics also point to a wider crackdown against the opposition in Addis Ababa and throughout Ethiopia.
One leading opposition figure, Merera Gudina, says he expects that the prisoners will be freed. But he says that will do nothing to address his concern that the opposition has been frozen out of the political scene.
"Well, it can help the release of the prisoners no doubt about that, but the problem is, I am not sure whether it can move forward, the Ethiopian politics," he said. "The democratic process is generally frozen. As far as the release of the prisoners are concerned, possibly the wind in the city looks like they are going to achieve that. But as far as the larger political process in the country is concerned, I do not think much could be achieved."
The government's move to squelch the protests and its subsequent crackdown has put the United States in an awkward position. The United States is Ethiopia's most important ally and has cooperated closely with it during its invasion of Somalia, which began on Christmas Eve.
U.S. officials have been careful not to speak out about the Ethiopian government's poor human rights record. Washington had not criticized the trials and only expressed concern when prosecutors in the trial asked for the death penalty.
On Tuesday, the state-run Ethiopian Herald newspaper published a letter in which the prisoners acknowledged making mistakes and requested that the government pardon them. The country's president must make the final decision, but the laws gives him almost no power and any release must have Prime Minister Meles' consent.
Opposition party member Merera and others say the letter from the jailed leaders may not be genuine. It could be a new government attempt to taint the opposition and resurrect its image in the face of international condemnation.
"Ethiopian television and radio is in a serious propaganda war against them," added Merera Gudina. "It is not a normal national reconciliation. It looks like the government tries to humiliate them rather than stretch its hand for national reconciliation. So that is what makes me skeptical, whether we are moving forward or not."
Those sentenced to life in prison were convicted of trying to overthrow the government when they took part in post-election demonstrations in 2005. An independent investigation later concluded that the government responded too harshly in crushing the demonstrations.