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Will 35 Ethiopians Acknowledge Blame to Win Their Freedom?

This week’s sentencing of 35 Ethiopian activists to life-in-prison has been followed by reports they are accepting blame in exchange for their freedom. The dilemma of signing a government release in exchange for a reprieve invites the question of whether the government is trying to coax the pardons in order to get the dissidents out of the international human rights spotlight. Dr. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says he does not yet know how officials in Addis Ababa intend to handle the convictions. But he notes that the sentences themselves were harsh, considering the lack of evidence presented in court.

“They seem pretty excessive. They had been threatening executions, so then it looks like they’re stepping down, that it’s still part of a broader sort of repressiveness of opposition after the ’05 elections,” he said.

Ethiopia’s political opposition was strengthened in 2005 elections by winning a record number of seats in parliament. The opposition staged mass protests after the vote, charging that the outcome was rigged to keep Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in power. At least 193 Ethiopians lost their lives in the ensuing government crackdown on demonstrators. Morrison says that facing mass protests, Ethiopian officials viewed the opposition as a strategic threat to the Meles government, not a legitimate form of protest against the electoral outcome. He says although he was relieved that the prosecution’s calls for a death sentence were reduced this week to life-in-prison outcomes, the government did not have a powerful case to present in court against the 35 defendants.

“It would have been completely outrageous if they had gone to death sentences. So that doesn’t eliminate the question around ‘Were these punishments of life sentences proportionate to the crimes that were committed?’ And I remain unconvinced that they were proportionate at all. And I don’t think that the prosecution made a very convincing case,” he said.

Given the close cooperation between Washington and Addis Ababa on restoring a civilian government in Somalia and opposing Al-Qaida in the war against terrorism, Morrison says he does not foresee a high-profile US criticism of this week’s verdicts. But he notes that the diaspora community of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States is becoming increasingly vocal and effective in sounding its disfavor with the treatment of dissenters in their former home.

“There has been a maturation and coalescence of Ethiopian opposition politics within the United States, that is, within the resident population. There’s a sizeable Ethiopian population in the United States, many of whom are citizens of the United States who have become quite vocal and well organized. That’s a factor. That’s an interesting development. And that’s something that doesn’t dominate the US policy perspective, but it certainly is a new factor in shaping and particularly in certain constituencies, it gets attention in Congress,” he said.