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Ethiopian Government Minister Reacts to U.S. Senators' Criticism

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A senior Ethiopian official says his government has a responsibility to maintain law and order and would not be swayed by outside criticism. The official, Bereket Simon, an advisor to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was responding to a letter from four influential U.S. senators to the Ethiopian prime minister. 

In their letter, the four senators, including Russell Feingold, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, warned that U.S.-Ethiopian relations could become more difficult because of the Ethiopian government's actions against its opposition. 

The senators said they were concerned about the re-arrest of opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa and the passage of a law restricting civil society groups.

Bereket Simon, advisor to the Ethiopian prime minister told VOA the U.S. senators' criticism and accusations are unwarranted.

"If anyone is breaking the law, it's their problem and not our problem. Ethiopian government believes government has a mandate and an obligation to ensure the rule of law in Ethiopia. So it's an unwarranted accusation and criticism," he said.

The senators said in their letter that they were concerned about the re-arrest of opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa. Simon said the opposition leader broke the rules of her conditional pardon.

"First these opposition leaders had been tried and sentenced, and they asked for conditional pardon. Government granted them a conditional pardon which literally means if this person once again transgresses the law of the land, it would be a breach of the pardon, and that's what she did. We don't accept double standard here. We believe citizens who don't have the backing of (U.S.) senators are equal to those who don't have the backing of senators wherever. She has made mistakes and she has to account for it. Why should we be criticized by the senators?" Simon said.

The letter, dated January 16th, was signed by Senator Russell Feingold, chair of the Senate's subcommittee on African Affairs. Other signatories are Senator Patrick Leahy, Richard Durbin, and Johnny Isakson.

The senators criticized Ethiopia's recent law restricting civil society groups. Simon said foreigners do not have the same political rights as Ethiopian citizens to participate in Ethiopian affairs.

"The law differentiates between citizens and foreign-based NGO. Citizens have every right to participate in Ethiopian politics. In fact it is mandated by Ethiopian Constitution. So government cannot put a limit. On the other hand, those foreign-based NGOs who are here because of the privilege that is given to them by the government do not have the political rights to participate in Ethiopian affairs," Simon said.

He said Ethiopia is not worried about the U.S. Senators' criticism of the Meles Zenawi government, especially at a time when a new U.S. administration led by Barack Obama is about to take over the leadership of the U.S. government.

"No matter what the times might be, these Congressmen are telling us not to enact laws that are useful to Ethiopia. They are going to put pressure on us because we enacted our own laws. This Ethiopia; it's a sovereign state. I don't think any Congressman can tell us what to do," Simon said.


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