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Ethiopian protesters want US Inhofe to support rights bill

November 13, 2007 (OKLAHOMA CITY) — About 75 protesters demonstrated Tuesday outside the Oklahoma City office of U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, saying he is blocking consideration of a bill that addresses human rights in Ethiopia.

But a spokesman for Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said the senator has not placed a hold on the bill, known as House Bill 2003, which is in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has not yet reached the Senate floor.

“The senator knows it’s out there, but as of today, there is absolutely no hold on that bill,” said John Collison, Inhofe’s state director. Collison said he planned to meet with the protest leaders on Tuesday afternoon to listen to their concerns.

“We’re both going for the same goal, which is a peaceful Ethiopia,” he said. “It’s just how we go at it.”

During the peaceful protest — held across a major thoroughfare from one of Oklahoma City’s major shopping malls — many demonstrators held U.S. flags, while others held the red, yellow and green flag of Ethiopia. Some carried signs, including one that read, “Sen. Inhofe, let democracy flourish and thrive in the land of the Blue Nile!”

“The founding principle of the United States is bringing justice and liberty and democracy to everybody, every human being. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Ethiopia or America,” said Dagnea Teshome of Los Angeles, a founder of the Association of Ethiopian-American Evangelicals and a co-organizer of the protest. “We have God-given rights to be free.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., passed in the U.S. House on Oct. 2. It decries Ethiopia’s recent human rights record and opens the door for sanctions. Any sanctions would kick in only if Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government does not return to democracy and restore human rights protections. Payne has said the bill is not punitive.

On Oct. 17, Inhofe issued a statement criticizing the legislation, saying it “focuses only on shortcomings while blatantly ignoring the unprecedented progress the country has made.” He said the bill contains language that “enflames tensions already present in the Horn of Africa, threatening regional stability and long term U.S. national security.”

Collison said Inhofe is particularly concerned with the issue because Ethiopia is an ally of the U.S. in the War on Terror. Collision said Inhofe would consider placing a hold on the bill if it reaches the full Senate in its current form.

“We’re hoping to maybe change some language around if it does come out of the committee,” Collison said.

Teshome said Inhofe has been provided with misleading information about Ethiopia.

“He thinks that Ethiopia is democratizing and Ethiopia is changing, and he thinks it is going to take some time, but they are on the right track,” Teshome said. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s getting worse as we speak. Even people who speak out here, they’re targeted, their relatives are targeted.”

Semayne Shayalew of Oklahoma City, the president of the Ethiopian Community Association of Oklahoma, said the current government in Ethiopia has restricted freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. She said the goal of the protest was to change Inhofe’s mind about the bill.

“We ask that Sen. Inhofe stand with Ethiopia … not a dictator who is terrorizing his own people,” Shayalew said.

“America is a free country. We need our (Ethiopian) people to be free.”

Collision said Inhofe has a granddaughter from Ethiopia and has visited the nation four times.

“He’s very involved in the country and knows the leadership of that country very well,” Collison said. “He’s not just doing this from Washington, D.C. He’s actually been there and seen it and knows the issues of that country.”