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Ethiopia Accused of Detaining Activists to Deter Uprising

Ethiopia has detained dozens of political activists as part of what opposition groups say is a crackdown aimed at preventing a North African or Middle Eastern style popular uprising. Our correspondent in Addis Ababa says the crackdown is focused on the politically sensitive Oromia region, home to more than one third of the country’s population.

Oromo opposition leaders say as many as 100 of their party members have been arrested in federal police sweeps over the past two weeks. They say many of those detained are charged with minor offenses such as quarreling with neighbors.

Bekele Gerba, deputy leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement says the arrests have spread fear among opposition activists in Ethiopia’s largest region.

"Anyone who speaks the language and does not belong to the ruling party is a suspect and can be taken to prison any time," said Bekele Gerba. "They want to show, if you don’t belong to us or you happen to support any opposition, this is your fate tomorrow. This is how we are going to drag you into prison. So people are intimidated now."

Bekele says opposition groups see the crackdown as a warning to anyone hoping to inspire a popular uprising like those sweeping other countries in the region.

"They are worried about what is going on around the world and what is happening to dictators around the world, and it is because of that that mass arrest and intimidation are going around," he said.

Oromia region officials flatly rejected any political motive behind the arrests. Spokesman Mesfin Assefa says the government respects people’s right to political dissent.

"There is rule of law in this country," said Mesfin Assefa. "There is due process of law. Everybody who violates the law or who breaches the trust of public will be liable. If certain guys commit crime, they will be liable for their offenses."

The arrests come at a time when government officials are admittedly nervous about unrest in the region. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi this month said he was especially worried about political turmoil in Yemen, just 150 kilometers from Ethiopia’s northern border. Mr. Meles said some domestic opposition groups were trying to incite a copycat uprising.

"We are aware that some parties who are legally operating in Ethiopia are praying this happens, and maybe playing a few games to try to accelerate such an event," said Prime Minister Zenawi. "So we are watching these issues carefully."

A sign of the government’s growing unease has been a partial resumption of jamming of VOA language service broadcasts to Ethiopia. The broadcasts are often jammed before Ethiopia’s elections, but the jamming stops after the voting.

Opposition leader Bekele says recent broadcast have been audible, except for loud noises that disrupt the signal when political issues are discussed.

"We have a lot of problem even to listen to the VOA," he said. "The jamming. There are experts who are standing by and ready to jam the wave every time if there is any political issue. Immediately the jamming starts. It has become virtually impossible to listen to the VOA on the radio. It is only possible on the Arabsat satellite."

VOA last year began broadcasts to Ethiopia by the Arabsat satellite after Prime Minister Meles authorized jamming its short wave radio signals. The website is also blocked to Ethiopian internet users.

VOA is the only international radio service broadcasting in three main Ethiopian languages, Amharic, Afan Oromo and Tigrayan.