Human Rights Watch has accused the Ethiopian government of launching a "coordinated and sustained attack" against political opponents, journalists and activists ahead of the country's May 23 elections. In a report released Wednesday, the organization says the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, has ruled with an "iron fist," and seriously undermined the public's ability to speak out against the government.
Speaking to journalists in Nairobi, Human Rights Watch Africa Director Georgette Gagnon accused the government of creating a climate of fear and oppression in the run up to the May elections.
"Ethiopians, millions of them, are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, challenge their government's policies, either through peaceful protest, voting or publicizing their views without fear of reprisal," she said.
According to the report, Ethiopia's leaders are able to quell almost any sign of dissent through a combination of legislation, intimidation and harassment. Through what it calls a "root and branch structure of surveillance", which extends from the capital Addis Ababa to almost every rural household, Human Rights Watch says the leading party can constantly monitor individuals and exert its influence over millions of Ethiopians.
Gagnon said the EPRDF is aiming to turn Ethiopia into a one party state by arresting political opponents and withholding aid like farming seeds and microcredits from people who refuse to become party members.
"This multi-faceted strategy is extremely effective at monitoring and controlling dissent. The government only needs to punish a few people to create a climate of fear and send a chilling message that makes dissent almost impossible," she said.
Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon called HRW's accusations "ridiculous". And last week, Prime Minister Meles Zinawi said that his government is committed to making the elections peaceful, democratic and truthful.
The international media has accused Ethiopia of seriously limiting press freedom in the run-up to the elections. Among the moves to anger journalists is a new press code that sets strict guidelines on election day coverage. The new code bans press interviews with all candidates and election observers or voters. It also limits coverage from inside polling stations and disallows predictions before the official results are announced.
VOA is now broadcasting its local Amharic language service to Ethiopia via satellite after previous broadcasts were jammed under orders from Prime Minister Zenawi. He accused VOA of broadcasting "destabilizing propaganda." The U.S. State Department has strongly criticized the jamming and labeled it a contradiction to Ethiopia's commitments to a free press.
With foreign assistance said to account for approximately one third of all Ethiopia's government expenditure, Human Right's Watch is calling on the country's major donors; the World Bank, United States, Britain and the European Union to take a harder line with the government on rights violations before and after the vote.
"If, as expected, the EPRDF wins a landslide victory on May 23rd it is unlikely to be a victory for democracy, rather it will be a vindication of a strategy of repression and control," she said.
Human Rights Watch recommended Ethiopia improve the pre-vote environment by refraining from intimidation and by releasing high profile political prisoners, who, the organization says, should be allowed to stand for election.