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Boycotting Ethiopian MPs Blast Loss of Immunity

Ethiopia's lower house of parliament has voted to lift immunity from prosecution from about 100 opposition lawmakers absent from the legislature.

The more than 100 opposition parliament members had boycotted Monday's opening session to protest the country's May 15 elections, which they say were won fraudulently by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

On Tuesday, newly re-confirmed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy of committing what he called "serious crimes" to "dismantle the constitution through violence and chaos."

Parliament then voted to remove the boycotting lawmakers' immunity from arrest and prosecution, sparking the walkout of opposition members who had not joined the boycott.

Coalition for Unity and Democracy Member of Parliament Yacob Haile-Mariam tells VOA the move was illegal, unconstitutional, and, in his words, "politically imprudent."

"There are only three specific reasons whereby they can nullify our immunity," he said. "One way would be if we are guilty of very serious crime, or it we were caught in committing the crime, that also would be a ground for nullifying our immunity. And, then, if we were recalled by those who have elected us, then that would be another ground."

Mr. Yacob denies that the opposition had committed any crimes while organizing and holding protests against the elections. He tells VOA the protests were peaceful and were authorized by both the constitution and the government.

Opposition members say they fear the removal of the immunity will be the first step in a government campaign to harass and jail dissenting MPs, and that it was to punish them for boycotting Parliament.

Former Minister of Information Bereket Simon tells VOA the revoking of the MPs' immunity is a measure to protect the country.

"The message for the public is not that we are going to crack down," he explained. "Giving immunity to potentially violent forces is like putting handguns into the hands, so why should the government take this risk because we know repeatedly the opposition parties' and their leaders have violated the law."

Relations between the ruling party and the opposition have deteriorated sharply recently. Shortly after the May 15 elections there were violent demonstrations in which at least 36 people were killed, allegedly by security forces.

Last month, police arrested more than 800 Coalition for Unity and Democracy members for allegedly preparing to disrupt law and order.

In late August, Prime Minister Meles blasted the European Union for reporting that its monitors had found instances of fraud, intimidation of opposition leaders, and human-rights abuses during the post-election demonstrations.

Mr. Yacob tells VOA he and his colleagues will return to Parliament if certain conditions are met.

"We are asking for an election board which is neutral and independent," he added. "And then the media belongs to the taxpayer, and we are demanding that we should have a share in its utilization. And then as you may recall there was a massacre in the city, and we want an independent investigative commission to investigate and find out who is guilty for those crimes."

Former information minister Mr. Bereket says Parliament will go on without the boycotting MPs.

"The anomaly is not created by the ruling party or by the government, it is created by the opposition," said Mr. Bereket. "They have declined to take their seats. There is no reason that the ruling party shall not go forward with passing laws and passing resolutions and making decisions. The government or the ruling party is not in a position to force them [opposition MPs]. Nevertheless, we are not in a position also to be held hostage by such blackmail tactics."

This week's opening of Parliament also saw a major cabinet reorganization.