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Ethiopian Court Denies Bail to Political Opponents, Journalists


Ethiopia's Federal High Court has refused to grant bail to a group of opposition members, journalists, and aid workers facing serious charges in connection with two rounds of protests following last May's elections. Defense lawyers have been barred from consulting with their clients.

The group of 131 people facing treason, genocide, and other charges includes most of the top leadership of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, and five journalists working for Voice of America. Some of the accused are out of the country and have been charged in absentia.

Federal Court Judge Adil Ahmed ruled that the charges were too serious to allow the detainees to be out on bail.

Among other things, they are accused of trying to overthrow the government during demonstrations last June and November. Protesters alleged the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front won the May 15 elections through electoral fraud. More than 80 people were killed in those demonstrations.

Beyene Petros leads another opposition party, United Ethiopian Democratic Forces. He tells VOA the charges levied against the group are politically motivated.

"We did not feel the government has evidence to prove that most of the violence at Addis Ababa and a few other major centers were really instigated and even called for by opposition parties," he said. "I do not think the ruling party and the government, by using this heavy hand, can adequately seek solutions for the outstanding issues this country is facing."

Mr. Beyene says the government and ruling party should begin a dialogue with opposition members and other critics instead of resorting to what he calls "heavy-handed" tactics.

Teshome Gabre-Mariam is a defense lawyer in the case. He tells VOA it has been about three weeks since he was allowed to consult with his client.

"Initially, permissions were given grudgingly to interview and discuss matters with the defendant when they were under police custody during the investigation stage," he said. "Once the charges had been leveled against them, and the charges were read to them, they were transferred to the central prison, where we were refused access to them, and therefore we cannot assist them as regards to the charges and how best to defend themselves."

Possible penalties against group members range from lengthy jail terms to the death sentence.

Donors including the World Bank, the European Union, and Britain had recently indicated that they plan to withhold $375 million in direct budgetary support to the Ethiopian government to show their concerns about the case and other developments.

In a previous interview, government official and former information minister Bereket Simon told VOA that his government has tolerated what he termed the opposition supporters' violence, and that the case is being handled through the due process of law.

He denied that the accused did not have access to their lawyers, saying that the lawyers decided not to represent their clients following consultations.

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