Ethiopian election officials are predicting more than 20 million voters will register for parliamentary elections in May. The process is now underway for both candidates and voters in all areas except the troubled Somali region. But opposition parties are complaining their supporters are being harassed, intimidated, and in some cases jailed.
Qinati Abdisa, 50, a regional leader of Ethiopia's Oromo Federal Democratic Movement, was arrested at his home this month on a weapons possession charge. He was convicted and sentenced to three months in jail. His family says the weapon was planted by security agents who searched their house.
OFDM chairman Bulcha Demeksa charges Qinati's arrest was timed to prevent him from registering as a candidate for parliament. "The period of registration will end in about three weeks. If you are not registered, you cannot campaign. If you don't campaign, you don't get elected. So Qinati Abdisa is finished as far as the election is concerned, unless the Supreme Court of Oromia reverses their decision," he said.
Oromos are the largest of Ethiopia's many ethnic groups. They make up about 40 percent of the population. But Oromia is also home to a nationalist insurgent group, the Oromo Liberation Front. Bulcha says he is receiving reports that police are searching the homes of other opposition figures and finding documents linking them to the OLF.
"I know in other cases, they have taken documents and left them in their houses and have gone in and taken it and charged them with association with OLF. I know this. I've seen cases where it is absolutely true," he said.
Opposition leaders in the northern Tigray region say their supporters are also being intimidated in advance of the elections. A group of Tigrayan farmers were detained last month when they traveled to Addis Ababa to tell international rights groups the government was denying them food aid for political reasons.
Gebru Asrat, leader of the opposition Arena Tigray party, says security forces accused the farmers of betraying the country, and threatened them with long prison terms for talking to foreigners. "Seven people were arrested. They came to plead to the international community about their complaints, but the security caught them and for five days and sent them back to Tigray. It is the [party] cadres and the security who are controlling the situation there. The courts have no authority. It is the intelligence and security people who have the power," he said.
Government officials flatly deny the charges, calling them an attempt to undermine the election. In a telephone interview, Ethiopia's National Electoral Board spokesman Mohammed Abdurahman challenged the opposition to provide evidence to back up their allegations."We don't believe in this country people are arrested for their political views, so they have the right, if somebody is arrested because of being a member of political party, then the board would solve that problem, but it should be supported with evidence, because somebody arrested for some criminal, committing a crime, if he's associated with being a member of some party, that would not be right, acceptable," he said.
There has been no independent confirmation of any of the charges or counter charges. An American journalist who traveled to Tigray this month to verify the allegations about the use of food aid for political purposes was detained by security agents for two days and threatened with deportation. His case is pending.