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Rights Group Worried About Key Western Allies in East Africa

A U.S.-based human rights group says it is alarmed about the number of governments in East Africa and the Horn, which are using repressive and violent tactics to stay in power and silence their opponents. Several countries named by Human Rights Watch are key western regional allies.

In the past four months, Human Rights Watch researchers have authored no less than seven major reports about East Africa and the Horn, most of them documenting what they say is a worrisome trend toward governments tightening their grip on power through repression, violence, and human rights abuses.

One of the group's lead researchers for Africa, Chris Albin-Lackey, tells VOA that human rights and freedoms in east African and Horn of African countries are eroding rapidly, and there appears to be no end in sight.

"It is hard to see much room for optimism anywhere in the region really," said Chris Albin-Lackey. "There are reasons to be worried, afraid, and a little bit pessimistic about all of the countries in the region."

Albin-Lackey says one of the biggest disappointments has been the government of political rivals President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga in Kenya.

The coalition government, considered one of the most important regional partners for the United States and the European Union, was formed last year after disputed presidential elections sparked country-wide riots and tribal fighting. Both Kenyan leaders had pledged to work together to heal the nation and to tackle poverty and corruption.

But Albin-Lackey says renewed allegations of high-level corruption, a government attempt to implement a law designed to muzzle the media and U.N. charges that Kenyan security forces were authorized to carry out hundreds of extrajudicial killings in 2007 have all raised questions about the government's commitment to democracy and reform.

"Kenya is so hobbled by corruption and by the quality of governance that the threat of poverty and ethnic violence boiling over again into something like what we saw after the elections is becoming more and more real," he said.

Another strategic partner for the West in the region is Ethiopia, which with U.S. support, intervened in neighboring Somalia in late 2006 to oust militant Islamists from power. During Ethiopia's two-year occupation in Somalia, its troops were repeatedly accused of committing atrocities against the Somali people.

At home, the Ethiopian government has been accused of harassing and jailing opposition leaders and killing hundreds of protesters. Albin-Lackey says the government's human rights record has worsened in recent years with allegations that Ethiopian military forces have committed war crimes in two conflicts raging inside the country.

"Since the early 1990s, Ethiopia has been growing steadily more repressive and limited democratic openings have been pretty comprehensively sealed off with not much hope, at least in the immediate term, of things moving in the opposite direction," said Albin-Lackey.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch also accused the government in Uganda of allowing its anti-terror unit to illegally detain and torture numerous suspects. The United States and Britain train and provide funding for Uganda's counterterrorism operations. All three governments have denied charges of wrongdoing by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and other groups.