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US Urges Ethiopia to Drop Charges Against VOA Reporters

A top U.S. diplomat in Ethiopia says the government there should drop treason, genocide and other charges against five Ethiopian-born journalists working for the Voice of America.

The U.S. embassy's charge d'affaires, Vicki Huddleston, told reporters that Ethiopia should have directly discussed with the U.S. government any concerns it had about the work of the five journalists - instead of charging them in court.

The five have been charged in absentia because they are based in Washington. The journalists are Negussie Mengesha, Addisu Abebe, Tizita Belachew, Adanech Fessehaye and Solomon Kifle.

They are among the 129 opposition leaders, journalists, and aid workers who have also been charged with treason and plotting to overthrow Ethiopia's government. The charges were filed in response to the deadly violence that erupted following disputed parliamentary elections in May that kept Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in power.

Some of the charges carry the death penalty.

Ms. Huddleston says the U.S. has banned future sales of military vehicles (Humvees) to Ethiopia because some equipment sold to the government for counter-terrorism operations was used to quell violent demonstrations in June and November.

In Washington, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto told VOA the United States is deeply engaged in resolving Ethiopia's political tensions, saying he has raised the issue directly with Prime Minister Meles. "We made it very clear we want very open and transparent trials," he said. "We want representations. We want access by lawyers and family members - and that is something we have emphasized."

Mr. Yamamoto says the Ethiopian government has assured the United States it will protect human rights and due process of law during the trials.

Scores of anti-government supporters alleging electoral fraud were shot and killed by security forces during anti-government protests in Ethiopia last year. Mr. Yamamoto described the violence as horrible, but he said the United States has concerns about how the government responded. "We have strong concerns about the violence that has taken place and . . . how that violence was responded to," he said.

Mr. Yamamoto also had a message for the opposition in Ethiopia, where some opposition members of parliament have refused to take up their seats in protest. "We are also asking the opposition, however, that no matter how serious or grave some of things they believe are, with at least 25 top level parliamentarians in jail, we say they need to also focus on what's the future of Ethiopia going to be?" he said. "Are we going to stay and say, 'yes, these are important issues?' We also need to help them focus on other important issues as well. And that is the reform of the political system."

Mr. Yamamoto dismissed allegations that any counter-terrorism relationship the U.S. has with Ethiopia is driving its policy on the election dispute and efforts to promote democracy and good governance.

He repeatedly stressed that all sides - the government and opposition members of parliament - must be involved in the process of reconciliation. Mr. Yamamoto added that ultimately, with a vibrant opposition and free press, democracy in Ethiopia will be greatly enhanced.