The House of Representatives has approved legislation aimed at supporting democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, a congressional committee also heard testimony on the human rights situation in Ethiopia, and the situation in the Ogaden region of the country.

The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act was approved by voice vote in the House of Representatives.

It would bar U.S. non-humanitarian, security and other assistance, with the exception of peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and impose a visa ban on Ethiopian officials involved in lethal force or accused of gross human rights violations.

The U.S. president would have to certify that Ethiopia's government is taking remedial steps, including the release of political prisoners, ensuring an independent judiciary and free media and punishing security personnel involved in unlawful killings.

The measure would also authorize $20 million in each of the next two years to promote human rights, democracy and economic development in Ethiopia.

New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne, the primary sponsor, says Ethiopia's government continues to stifle and criminalize opposition activities and intimidate journalists. "The legislation before the House will withhold non-humanitarian funds from the Ethiopian government until democracy and respect for human rights are fully restored. It will send a strong signal of dissatisfaction to the Ethiopian government and increase pressure on the Ethiopian leaders to change," he said.

The U.S. Senate also has to approve the measure. However, the White House, which considers Ethiopia an ally in the fight against terrorism, has opposed the legislation despite a provision giving the president authority to ignore the ban on assistance.

In a hearing Tuesday on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, the top U.S. official for African affairs, Jendayi Fraser, said the U.S. continues to press the Ethiopian government on human rights. "Political restrictions, including any harassment of or impediments blocking elected officials access to their constituencies, and restrictions on independent journalists and their media outlets remain issues of concern," he said.

Also testifying was Bertukan Mideksa, vice chairperson of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, a grouping of political parties that competed for seats in the 2005 Ethiopian general election.

She was jailed by Ethiopian authorities in October 2005 and was among 71 activists and journalists freed from prison this past July. "The time is right for democratization in Ethiopia. The U.S. can help by using its considerable influence to encourage the government to negotiate with [the] opposition. Only through dialogue and negotiation will stability and peace be guaranteed," she said.

"The only way that we [can] have a stable and prosperous Ethiopia that can be a source of stability in the region and a stable and reliable partner to the international community in the struggle against terrorism and extremism is by democratizing the country and providing basic liberty to its citizens," said Berhanu Nega, who holds a doctoral degree and is another former political prisoner.

Other testimony Tuesday dealt with the situation in Ethiopia's predominantly ethnic Somali Ogaden region where there has been an intensifying conflict between Ethiopian government forces and an Ogaden rebel force.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, Washington Advocate of Human Rights Watch, points to what he calls a humanitarian and human rights crisis there. "We believe there is a human rights and humanitarian crisis looming in the area. Hundreds of thousands are at risk and this has all the hallmarks of the situation we saw in Darfur in 2003 and 2004 which is a very severe counter-insurgency program with ethnic overtones, coupled with severe restrictions on humanitarian access," he said.

The United Nations recently called for an investigation into reported human rights violations in the Ogaden region, and launched an appeal for food aid for an estimated 600,000 people.