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UN Human Rights Chief Blasts Ethiopia


The U.N. human rights chief has blasted the Ethiopia's human rights situation, saying that she is troubled by the continued detention of political opponents in what she calls rudimentary and harsh prison conditions.

More than 100 opposition politicians, activists, journalists and others who protested the results of last year's elections and subsequently detained for treason, genocide and other charges, remain behind bars.

U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told the French news agency, AFP, that political and civil rights in Ethiopia are declining after years of hope and that the human rights situation is under a lot of strain.

Arbour also blasted authorities for not allowing the detainees to apply for bail, and said she was distressed by what she saw during her visit to Kaliti prison.

She made her remarks as she wrapped up her four-day visit to Ethiopia, during which time she met with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, representatives of the international community and several detainees.

Lawyer Teshome Gabre-Mariam, who was one of several defense lawyers for the detainees until February, tells VOA he is pleased that Arbour has visited Ethiopia and highlighted the issue of the detentions.

Teshome explains that in February, his former clients dismissed him and his fellow lawyers, saying that there was no need for the lawyers' services.

"As far as they are concerned, there is no judicial independence, and as far as the government is concerned, the government has already condemned them, and they know that the courts will merely transmit, in a legal form, the government's decision," he noted. "They say they are not interested in participating in this theatrical performance, let the government or the court do what they want, and we will bear the consequences. They are not prepared to play the game."

Teshome says the political detainees are being held in sub-standard conditions.

"The sanitary conditions are not good, too many people in the same room, many of these people are not in good health, diseases can be communicated easily," he said.

The 22-member Ambassadors' Donors Group Monday called on Ethiopian authorities to free the imprisoned opposition politicians and others, and that those who the government do not release receive a speedy, fair, and transparent trial.

The trial of the 111 detainees is set to resume next week.

During and after the May 2005 elections, Ethiopian authorities arrested thousands of protestors across the country, accusing many of them of fomenting violence and trying to overthrow the government. Most were released, but the top leadership of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy are among the ones sill detained.

Among those charged with treason were five Voice of America reporters. The charges were subsequently dropped.

Opposition members, supporters, and others accuse the ruling party of committing electoral fraud to secure a victory.