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Ethiopia Charges 46 In Plot To Topple Government

Ethiopia has formally charged 46 people, most with military backgrounds, with conspiracy to assassinate public officials and overthrow the government. The accused include a prominent former political leader living in exile in the United States.

Charges against the alleged conspirators were filed in an Addis Ababa court. More than 30 of the suspects are current or former army officers, including a highly-decorated general who was said to be the leader of the military wing of the conspiracy.

Communications Minister Bereket Simon says 32 of those charged are in custody. Twelve are in exile, mostly in the United States and Britain. The whereabouts of the other two are unknown.

Communications Minister Bereket says despite the involvement of so many army officers, investigators found no evidence of a planned military coup.

"The difference is a coup is organized by the military," said Bereket Simon. "This is not organized by the military, this is an act of a misfit group who were desperate in many acts and aspects, and this misfit group was trying to assassinate people, take a series of such measures and blow up facilities so they cleared the ground for some sort of state actions."

Those charged in absentia include alleged mastermind Berhanu Nega, a former opposition leader elected mayor of Addis Ababa in the disputed 2005 elections. Berhanu never took office, and later went to the United States where he is a university professor in Pennsylvania.

Berhanu openly advocates the ouster of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government, calling it illegitimate. But he has labeled the conspiracy charges a 'fabrication'.

Most of the alleged conspirators were arrested in a roundup April 25, and have since been held incommunicado without charge. They are expected to face a judge to hear the charges against them on Friday.

Family members say the extended detentions constitute a violation of the suspects' rights. But Bereket told reporters the law allows suspects in terrorism cases to be held indefinitely while police complete their investigations.

"No constitutional rights had been abrogated, because in a terrorist act the government has every mandate to ask the court to keep these people incommunicado till the investigation is finalized," he said. "So the government has done everything within legal bounds."

Ethiopia's parliament is considering a new anti-terrorism law that would give the government broad powers to monitor electronic communications, and to hold suspects without charge up to 120 days.

A draft seen by VOA also provides stiff penalties for journalists whose reporting is seen as favorable to those labeled terrorists and their causes.

Rights activists and opposition lawmakers have sharply criticized the draft law, saying it makes a mockery of constitutional protections.

Communications Minister Bereket sought to assure reporters that constitutional rights would be safeguarded.

"No law is superior to the constitution," said Bereket. "This is a government that is committed to the constitutional provisions, and in the constitution, any abuse of power is not allowed."

A final draft of the proposed terrorism law was approved by the Ethiopia's powerful Council of Ministers this week and sent to parliament, where pro-government factions hold a commanding majority and speedy approval is expected.