Nov 9, 2005 (ADDIS ABABA) — Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Wednesday that opposition leaders and newspaper editors under detention will face treason charges, which carries the death penalty in Ethiopia, for their alleged roles in protests last week in which at 46 people were killed.
Clashes last week between police and opposition supporters drew international condemnation and raised questions about Meles’s commitment to democracy.
The politicians and journalists “will not be released and they are accused of engaging in insurrection. That is an act of treason under Ethiopian law, they will be charged and will have their day in court,” Meles told a group of journalists working for foreign news organizations.
“I don’t know what the prosecution will ask for but the death penalty is still legal in Ethiopia. On a personal note that is not the penalty I would like to see applied,” Meles said. “It is for the prosecution and courts to decide, but if I have any say on it I would prefer prison sentences rather than death sentences.”
On Monday, authorities took 24 top opposition leaders to court, for the first time since they were detained last week.
The leaders, including Coalition for Unity and Democracy chairman Hailu Shawel and vice chairman Berhanu Nega and prominent human rights activist Mesfin Wolde Mariam, were ordered held another 14 days during the closed hearing in the same special court where members of a toppled military dictatorship were being tried.
Meles said that he regretted the loss of life and property but he would not comment on whether the police used excessive force during the protests until an independent inquiry to be set up by parliament gives its findings.
The prime minister said that demonstrators damaged more than 200 buses, ransacked many public offices, were found with five grenades and stole two assault rifles from the police.
He said that there were no political detainees in Ethiopia, saying the opposition leaders were arrested for organizing “a series of street actions, publicly and explicitly designed to overthrow a duly constituted government. That is a criminal act.”
“The violence has marred the image of Ethiopia,” Meles said. “The worst is clearly behind us and we do not expect any such violence in the near future.”
The violence began Nov. 1 after peaceful protests Oct. 31 over the disputed May 15 elections.
The vote gave Meles’s Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. Opposition parties have accused the ruling party of rigging the vote, and said the election and vote count were marred by fraud, intimidation and violence.
While the protests were sparked by the election dispute, many Ethiopians believe they reflect growing frustration over abject poverty in this nation of at least 70 million.