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Former Top Ethiopian Officials Join Jailed Opposition Leader's Party

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Jailing of political activists promises to be central issue in country's upcoming parliamentary election campaign

Two prominent Ethiopian politicians, both former close associates of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, joined the political party led by the jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa on Thursday. The jailing of political activists promises to be a central issue in the country's upcoming parliamentary election campaign.

Ethiopia's political balance shifted when the country's former president, Negasso Gidada, and former defense minister, Siye Abraha, joined the Unity for Democracy and Justice, or UDJ. It is considered the main party to emerge from the breakup of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or CUD, that won nearly 200 parliamentary seats in the disputed 2005 elections.

The CUD disintegrated after the vote, following violent anti-government protests in which an estimated 197 people died. Many opposition leaders were convicted of inciting the violence and were sentenced to life in prison. They were later pardoned, but Birtukan Mideksa -- the charismatic young co-founder of the UDJ -- had her pardon revoked and was sent back to prison to serve out her life sentence. Only a few of those elected under the CUD banner ever took their seats. /// END OPT ///

UDJ Vice Chairman Gizachew Shiferaw says his party and its partners in a coalition, known as the Forum, will make freedom for Birtukan a central issue in the parliamentary campaign that begins next month. He says the Forum plans to gather millions of signatures on a petition demanding Birtukan's release. "The imprisonment of Birtukan is political agenda for UDJ as well as the Forum. We are rallying the Ethiopian people to support through signatures the release of Birtukan. So we are distributing signature forms so Birtukan will be free before the election," he said.

Negasso Gidada and Siye Abraha are major figures in Ethiopian politics -- former members of the inner circle of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party. Mr. Negasso was the government's first president, but left after a falling out with Prime Minister Meles. He is now an independent Member of Parliament.

Siye was co-founder and military commander of the the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which played a key role in ousting the country's former Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Siye became defense minister when Prime Minister Meles took power in a bloodless coup in 1991.

Both Siye and Mr. Negasso described Mr. Meles as an authoritarian ruler who is intent on establishing a one-party state. In a speech to the UDJ leadership on Thursday, Mr. Negasso apologized to the Ethiopian people for his actions as president, saying he had lied in speeches in which he claimed the process of drafting the country's constitution had been democratic.

"The situation now reminds me of 15 years ago, where we were preparing for election after approving the constitution. On that day, I made a speech. I took out two quotations from that speech. One says, everything in the process of making the constitution was democratic. It was not a democratic process at that time. It was false; it was not true. I said I'm ashamed for that point and I asked forgiveness from parties and the people for lying," he said.

In his address to the gathering, Siye described as "laughable" the notion that the existence of 92 political parties in Ethiopia indicates multi-party democracy. He said it is in reality a "favorable condition for a one-party state."

The former Meles confidant called for cooperation among all opposition parties, saying it would not only shorten the life of dictatorship in Ethiopia, but it also would bring an end to Birtukan Mideksa's incarceration and that of other political prisoners.

Opposition leaders say Birtukan is one of more than 450 of their members who have been jailed to keep them from running in national elections set for May.

Authorities strongly deny that anyone has been arrested because of their political affiliation. They say those jailed were wanted for criminal offenses.