Under Pressure, Ethiopia Releases Prisoners

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On Friday, Ethiopia began releasing prisoners it had jailed two years ago in a crackdown on political opponents. Some human rights advocates on Capitol Hill are taking credit, saying it pays to put pressure on repressive regimes. The U.S. is now giving closer scrutiny to Ethiopia's human rights record at home.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

We have a story now about Ethiopia, a key American ally in the Horn of Africa. Earlier this year, with a green light from the U.S., Ethiopian troops entered neighboring Somalia and helped eject an Islamist movement there. Now though, Ethiopia's record at home is coming under closer scrutiny in Washington, particularly in Congress.

On Friday, the Ethiopian government pardoned, then began releasing opposition political figures they have rounded up in a crackdown two years ago. Some Americans saw this as a sign that outside pressure works.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that Ethiopia sees this otherwise.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Some of the opposition figures who walked free on Friday were allowed out only after they had been sentenced to life in prison and after signing an apology under duress.

But Ephraim Isaac paints a different picture. He's a scholar and a New Jersey resident who says he and a group of Ethiopian elders he leads helped negotiate the pardons.

Dr. EPHRAIM ISAAC (Scholar; Historian; Linguist; Conductor): We have a tradition in this country, a venerable ancient tradition of respect for elders. We say those who ask forgiveness are heroes. Those who give forgiveness are saints.

KELEMEN: The Ethiopian embassy put NPR in touch with Isaac, who argues that the West should have taken his efforts to free the dissidents more seriously. He says outside pressure on Ethiopia's government has been counterproductive.

Dr. ISAAC: I'm sorry to tell you that the prisoners would have come out of prison several months ago were it not for those pressures that came from certain sources in the European Union and in the Congress - United States Congress. The irony is they thought they will get these people out of prison by knocking on the heads of our leaders. It doesn't work.

KELEMEN: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters last week that he wouldn't allow Capitol Hill to treat them, as he put it, like a banana republic. Congressman Donald Payne says he assumes he was the target of those comments because he has moved legislation through the House Foreign Affairs Committee linking U.S. security aid to Ethiopia's human rights record.

Representative DONALD PAYNE (Democrat, New Jersey): I don't understand why he would make a statement like that. The United States of America has always expressed interest in human rights around the world.

KELEMEN: The New Jersey Democrat says his legislation is aimed only at supporting Ethiopia and democratic reform there. The country's elections in 2005, Payne says, initially seemed like a step in the right direction. But after opposition figures made gains and protested government vote tampering, the Ethiopian government became repressive.

Rep. PAYNE: You know, they arrested 30,000 people and 193 people were killed back in 2005. And it was advocates for Ethiopian's government saying, well, let's let them work it out its internal problem.

KELEMEN: Most of those prisoners have since been released but a top State Department official recently testified on Capitol Hill that the crackdown cast a shadow over the Ethiopian government.

Assistant Secretary of State Barry Lowenkron met with Prime Minister Meles about the prisoners earlier this year. Still, Payne says the Bush administration was too patient as scores of opposition figures continued to languish in prison. He intends to keep up the pressure on Ethiopia.

Rep. PAYNE: There are many still in prison and we would hope that the government will continue to move in the direction that is (unintelligible). I welcome what the government has done, but I think it's very little and it's very late.

KELEMEN: The State Department also called Friday's prisoner releases an important gesture and said it hopes now for a process of political reconciliation in Ethiopia.

Scholar Ephraim Isaac says that's already happening.

Dr. ISAAC: The process of reconciliation had just started and we feel that before the coming Ethiopian celebration of our millennium, which is on September 12th, we are hoping all prisoners will be out.

KELEMEN: Congressman Payne says he'll be marking that millennium as well with a House resolution. Another sign, he says, that the U.S. doesn't treat Ethiopia like a banana republic but does expect from it a better human rights record.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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