Ethiopian police have arrested a famous actor in an ongoing roundup of terrorism suspects that has also netted journalists and prominent opposition politicians. Opposition leaders and rights activists are accusing the government of using a new anti-terrorism law to silence political dissent.
Legendary stage and screen actor Debebe Eshetu was shown on Ethiopian television in handcuffs, the latest in a series of government opponents to be charged under a broad anti-terrorism law that went into effect earlier this year.
Debebe was the face of Ethiopia’s political opposition during the 2005 election campaign, appearing in television ads for the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. He was among opposition leaders convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison after disputes over the election results led to demonstrations in which nearly 200 protestors and 6 police officers were killed. All were later pardoned.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal says Debebe is accused of having links to the Ginbot Seven, a political party led by Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, but never took office and later went into exile in the United States, where he is a professor at Bucknell, a prestigious East Coast university.
Berhanu has advocated the overthrow of the current government by any means, and his party was one of five organizations outlawed under the new terrorism law.
Spokesman Shimeles said anti-terrorism police had been monitoring Debebe’s activities for some time.
"According to federal police, he was arrested yesterday [Thursday] afternoon on suspicion of involvement in clandestine terrorist activity that links him to Ginbot Seven," he said. "The police had information regarding the activity of this particular person and was following him very closely until they thought it is time to execute arrest."
Debebe’s arrest shocked many Ethiopians who know him as a legendary stage and screen actor. A former colleague in the CUD, Mesfin Hailemariam, called it ‘inconceivable’ that Debebe would be plotting a terrorist attack. In a telephone interview, “Professor Mesfin” as he is known, expressed concern about the wave of arrests under the anti-terror law.
"This is going on now and I don’t know where it will lead us," he said. "As far as I’m concerned, Debebe Eshetu is not a person who could be involved in any violent plan."
Debebe’s arrest comes at the end of a two week period that has seen dozens of people charged under the new anti-terrorism statute, including journalists and prominent opposition politicians.
Two leaders of parties representing Ethiopia’s Oromos, the country’s largest ethnic group, were arrested days after meeting a pair of Amnesty International delegates. The Amnesty team was expelled from the country.
At a news conference Friday, leaders of the main opposition bloc Medrek condemned the roundup as politically-motivated.
Former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada, now a Medrek leader, says the arrests are intended as a warning to anyone who might oppose the ruling party.
"It is only blackmailing people and having them arrested without cause, just to intimidate not only them, but those of us who are outside of prison," he said. "But we want to say to the government, this will not help, it will even strengthen our dedication, our commitment to struggle for freedom."
The anti-terrorism law has also been used against five journalists, including two Swedish freelancers who were caught in the company of an outlawed rebel group in Ethiopia’s restive Ogaden region. Two reporters for independent Ethiopian newspapers were also arrested, though the government denies the charges have anything to do with their journalistic activities.
The fifth accused is the operator of a stridently anti-government website based in the United States. Elias Kifle of the Ethiopian Review website was charged in absentia. The website is among many, including voanews.com, that are blocked in Ethiopia.