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Ethiopia Opposition Says World Ignores Jailed Leader's Plight

An Ethiopian opposition group says the international community is ignoring the plight of its jailed leader, who is listed by an arm of the United Nations Human Rights Council as a victim of arbitrary detention.

Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) held a candlelight vigil Thursday to mark the 13th month of their leader Birtukan Mideksa's imprisonment.

Birtukan, a 35-year-old lawyer and former judge, was among opposition politicians jailed for life in connection with violent protests that followed the disputed 2005 national elections. She and the others were later freed, but Birtukan was returned to jail and ordered to serve out her life sentence after denying she had asked for a pardon.

The Working Group of Arbitrary Detentions, an arm of the United Nations Human Rights Council, this month included Birtukan on a world wide list of those being arbitrarily detained.

With many of the world's top diplomats in Addis Ababa for the African Union summit beginning Sunday, UDJ spokesman Siye Abraha says there is a "shameful silence" on the issue of Birtukan's detention.

It is unfortunate that the international community is following double standards on an issue that's not less than that of Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi," said Siye Abraha. "Double standards because Birtukan is the only leader of an opposition political party who is detained arbitrarily, as testified by the UN Human Rights Council. But still this matter is being more or less hushed.

The UDJ has sought meetings with senior American, German and British officials visiting Ethiopia to raise the issue of Birtukan's detention. But Siye says western countries seem hesitant to raise human rights issues publicly with a country that is seen as a linchpin in efforts to fight international terrorism.

"We are in the Horn of Africa, a turbulent region, and geography has become a curse to us," said Abraha. "They talk of stability and security in the region. We are trying to show it is in the interest of the international community that there be human rights, free and fair election."

U.S. and British diplomats Friday denied there was any attempt to mute criticism of Ethiopia for Birtukan's detention. A British embassy spokesman in Addis Ababa says the Birtukan case was at the top of the agenda when UK Minister for Africa Glenys Kinnock met Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi this week.

A U.S. embassy spokesman said the head of the American delegation, Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Maria Otero, was also likely to raise the issue.

But Prime Minister Meles, speaking to reporters last month, said the question of Birtukan's release was a dead issue.

"This lady was advised...that it would be wrong for her to go to prison simply because she wouldn't correct the wrong statement she made and expose herself to the reinstatement of the court's decision," said Meles. "She was left under no illusion that if she went in, she would be in for the long haul. She this has everything to do with elementary notions of the rule of law."

Political analysts say opposition parties have virtually no chance of ousting Prime Minister Meles and his ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front in the May elections.

Leaders of the main opposition coalition allege their supporters are being arrested to prevent them from registering as candidates.

Efforts to reach a government spokesman Friday were unsuccessful, but officials have in the past accused the opposition of fabricating such charges to cover their weakness. The ruling party boasts a national membership of 4.5 million, and swept virtually all of more than three million seats contested in the 2008 local council elections.