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Ethiopia Police Deny Using Anti-Terror Law to Stifle Dissent

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Ethiopian police have rejected accusations that the recent detentions of several high-profile government critics were politically motivated. The arrests are coming under increasing criticism from opposition parties and international rights groups.

Deputy federal police commissioner Demesash Woldemikael says there is no truth to allegations that a new anti-terrorism law is being used to stifle political dissent. Speaking to reporters Friday, Demesash said the recent detentions of journalists and emerging leaders in opposition politics are based on hard evidence.

Demesash says the arrests of the last few days have nothing to do with a person’s politics. He says police are only concerned with whether they have evidence that can stand up in court.

Officials say the detainees are accused of having contact with groups outlawed under the anti-terrorism law, and planning terrorist attacks. Deputy Commissioner Demesash gave no information Friday about what attacks might have been planned, arguing that the cases are still under investigation.

A federal counter-terrorism task force has caught several fierce government critics in a series of swoops. Among the latest to be detained were independent journalist Eskinder Nega and Andualem Aragie, a rising star in the opposition Unity and Justice for Democracy party.

UDJ leaders Friday described the terrorism charges as an attempt by Ethiopia’s ruling party to terrorize critics in the name of fighting terrorism. Former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada, now the UDJ chairman, said the arrests of dissidents would strengthen the opposition, serving as a rallying cry for peaceful struggle against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s 20-year rule.

"Now they imprison our emerging leaders. And the government is trying to intimidate us to stop the struggle and this will not happen at any time. And we are not frustrated, in fact we members and supporters and the people,… will more intensify our commitment to intensify the struggle," said Negasso.

UDJ General Secretary Asrat Tassie said he was skeptical about the existence of any terrorist threat. He said the detentions appear to be an attempt by Ethiopia’s ruling party to stem growing unrest.

"I doubt it. I personally feel this is kind of creating a shock, to shock the people so that when they are scared about their independence, scared about their liberty, they will always rally behind even the cruel government, even the dictator, otherwise I think there is not imminent danger," said Asrat.

The detentions have come under severe criticism from human rights and press freedom groups.  The Committee to Protect Journalists Friday reported that Sileshi Hagos, former managing editor of a now-defunct magazine that covered the activities of the Ginbot 7 political party was taken into custody this week. He is the sixth journalist held under the anti-terrorism law.

Ginbot 7 is led by exiled politicians who advocate the overthrow of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. It is among five groups named under the new law as a terrorist organization.

The CPJ press release said local media reports on the detention of Sileshi Hagos and Eskinder Nega had portrayed them as "spies for foreign forces."

Human Rights Watch Friday called on the government to end what it described as a "broadening crackdown against dissent." Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying the arrests are "just the latest reminder that it is very dangerous to criticize the government in Ethiopia."

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