Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has blasted the latest U.S. State Department human rights report, saying it is full of lies and loopholes that expose its authors to ridicule. Mr. Meles also warned opposition politicians they could face prosecution after the May 23 elections.
The prime minister accused the State Department's human rights investigators of sloppy work in compiling the 61-page annual report on Ethiopia. Speaking to reporters, he said one person listed in the report as 'disappeared' could easily have been found alive and well at his workplace.
"The funny thing about this report is that they do not take the elementary steps of trying to verify the facts," said Meles Zenawi.
Mr. Meles charged that the U.S. report was riddled with mistruths and easily disproved allegations.
"So there are lies and lies," he said. "There are plausible lies and implausible ones. The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies, they would be plausible ones, but that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it, because it is so full of loopholes. They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie."
The State Department has staunchly defended the methods used in compiling the annual report, which was issued last week. Acting US Ambassador to Ethiopia John Yates said experts had gone to great lengths to ensure the document's accuracy, and rejected information that could not be verified.
Prime Minister Meles also criticized the report's listing of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa as among hundreds of political prisoners in Ethiopia.
Birtukan, a 35-year-old single mother and former judge, was arrested in December, 2008 and held in solitary confinement for six months, accused of violating terms of a pardon granted to opposition leaders jailed after the 2005 elections. She has been listed by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and by the UN Human Rights Council as a victim of arbitrary detention.
Her continued imprisonment is an issue in the May parliamentary elections. But Mr. Meles showed no sign of backing away from his long held stance that Birtukan would be treated as an ordinary criminal.
The State Department report spoke of credible reports that Birtukan's mental health had deteriorated significantly during the year.
"What some in the United States and others want is for her to be treated differently because they want to convey the message that those who have friends in the right places are immune from prosecution in Ethiopia," said Meles. "We will keep her in prison permanently to prove the contrary point."
Mr. Meles also warned opposition politicians that they could be prosecuted after the May 23 election for election law violations. He said the government is gathering information about unspecified illegal behavior, but would defer prosecution in the interest of a peaceful election.
He rejected opposition charges that the warning is an attempt at intimidation.
"We prefer to look the other way during the election contest, in the interest of a smooth election contest," he said. "If need be, we can come back to those crimes committed during the election, after the election. I hope it does not intimidate anybody."
Mr. Meles also brushed aside sharp criticisms by a former close colleague and family friend who is challenging him for the seat in parliament representing their home district.
Aregash Adane, a senior women fighter in the guerrilla movement that brought Mr. Meles to power, is accusing him of creating a de facto Marxist-Leninist one party state and staging sham elections to give the impression of democracy.
Asked about the charges, the prime minister said his opponent might have been carried away by what he called "the rhetoric that's flying around". He told reporters, "let's say this is a reflection of the heat of the competition more than a reflection of facts on the ground."