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Activist: Rights, liberties waning in Ethiopia
Activist: Rights, liberties waning in Ethiopia

JOHANNESBURG An Ethiopian human rights activist who was jailed for 2 1/2 years said Friday that his country is less free today than it was during its disputed 2005 election.

Daniel Bekele, 42, is crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada on a speaking tour after being honored for his human rights work by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The soft-spoken lawyer who won a court order that allowed him serve as an election monitor in Ethiopia in 2005, only to be arrested and charged with treason and attempted genocide later says a bevy of new, restrictive legislation bodes poorly for a free vote in 2010.

"What is very interesting to note in Ethiopia is sort of the opening of democratic space until 2005, and how that ... has constantly been shrinking, if not closing down since then," Daniel said in a telephone interview from Toronto. In keeping with Ethiopian custom, he uses his first name on second reference.

Those laws, he said, include legislation implemented last year that essentially forbids cash-strapped Ethiopian organizations from doing human rights work, if more than 10 percent of their budget comes from foreign donors, and a strict new anti-terrorism law that could be used to prosecute journalists for what they publish.

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said it was marred by irregularities.

The election was followed by violent protests. Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud.

Leslie Lefkow, a Human Rights Watch researcher who is accompanying Daniel on his speaking tour, said rights workers in Ethiopia face increasing harassment, arrest and danger.

"The situation for human rights defenders is not only tight, it's dangerous," she said Friday. "There are certainly human rights defenders who are being threatened and being forced to flee the country."

Opposition politicians have for months been pointing to signs of increased oppression in Ethiopia, notably the harassment and arrest of thousands of their candidates in 2008's local elections that they believe allowed the ruling party to sweep the elections.

Prime Minister Meles said in September that he will run in May's presidential election, reversing repeated avowals that he would retire. Meles has held power since he and his Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front led a 1991 coup to depose Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On Friday, more than 40 suspects arrested in April and charged with trying to plot a violent coup were scheduled to appear in an Addis Ababa court. The hearing was postponed.

"Some of the defendants made allegations that they were tortured and mistreated in earlier days," Lefkow said. "To my knowledge, they still have not been given access to an independent medical assessment of that. In these various trials, including in Daniel's own trial a few years ago, there's a lot of rhetoric about the Ethiopian judicial system adhering to the rule of law, but little evidence."

Daniel said he hopes to return to Ethiopia and resume his work after finishing his studies at Oxford University. For his own safety, he did not provide details about his time in prison with fellow activist Netsanet Demissie.

Both were initially charged with treason and attempted genocide along with 100 opposition leaders and journalists, then convicted of inciting violence and imprisoned for 2.5 years.

The main group of 38 politicians and journalists wrote a formal apology to the government and were convicted and pardoned in 2007, to great jubilation in the Ethiopian capital.

Daniel and Netsanet refused to sign the pardon deal and continued to fight their case as public attention for their situation waned. Daniel appeared undeterred by the sudden drop in attendance at the trial, appearing before the three-judge tribunal, his hands clasped, head high, speaking calmly and referring to thick law books.

"He is an incredibly courageous and committed person," Lefkow said. "He desperately wants to help build up Ethiopia into a democratic society."

AP writer Anita Powell was the AP's Ethiopia correspondent from 2007 to 2009.

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