Ethiopians Lobby for Democratic Reform

Ethiopia is a significant U.S. ally in the war on terror. When the U.S. wanted a change of government in neighboring Somalia, Ethiopian troops made it happen. Now some Ethiopian dissidents are lobbying Americans for democratic reform.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This is the day an ancient culture leaps into the new millennium. Maybe you thought everybody did that seven years ago, but Ethiopia still follows the Julian calendar. And under that calendar from ancient Roman times we have just arrived at New Year's Day in the year 2000.

INSKEEP: In a moment we'll listen to the celebrations.

First we look at an east African nation that's a significant U.S. ally in the war on terror. When the United States wanted a change of government in neighboring Somalia, Ethiopian troops made it happened.

Now some Ethiopian dissidents want Americans to support change in their own country. They're lobbying for Democratic reforms and they spoke with NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party in Ethiopia saw the 2005 elections as a major breakthrough. The opposition party did well. Seventy-one-year-old Hailu Araya won a seat in parliament. But within months, he and many others found themselves in jail - the target of a government crackdown on opposition figures.

Dr. HAILU ARAYA (Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party): It's a mystery for us too, really. It's very difficult for us to explain. This is why we didn't even choose to contest the charges, because we didn't know how to go about it, because (unintelligible)

KELEMEN: The father of two was convicted to life imprison for trying to overthrow the government, though he was pardoned after 20 months in jail. The same is true for Birtukan Mideksa, a 33-year-old lawyer and top party official who described the crowded conditions in which she and a dozens of other political prisoners were held for so long.

Ms. BIRTUKAN MIDEKSA (Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party): People who are charged with so many different type of crimes are put together. It really was a hard time for us, but more than that what was tormenting and a cause of suffering for us is we know that we didn't commit any crime.

KELEMEN: The two Ethiopian opposition figures, who came to NPR yesterday afternoon, are here in the U.S. meeting with the Ethiopian diaspora and trying to plot their next steps.

Ms. MIDEKSA: After terrible things, of course, happened to our lives, we are still ready for reconciliation. We are still ready for political dialogue.

KELEMEN: But just what kind of political lives they can have remains an open question. Araya says that when they were first convicted, they lost all their political rights.

Dr. ARAYA: When the pardon came, we were told that all these rights were restored. So on paper, theoretically, yes, we are free and we can participate. In practice, we're not sure. We haven't had enough time.

KELEMEN: The State Department did criticize Ethiopia for the crackdown, saying it cast a shadow over the government, but Araya believes that the imprisonment of opposition figures did not get the kind of attention it deserved in Washington because of America's security relationship with Ethiopia.

Dr. ARAYA: If our (unintelligible) is ignored or if the government, the U.S. government turns really a blind eye to what's going on in the country just because of this alliance, then there would be a disappointment. In fact, there's already a disappointment.

KELEMEN: New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne, who visited the opposition figures when they were in jail, has been trying to push through legislation that would tie U.S. aid to Ethiopia's record on human rights. Ethiopian officials have lobbied against it, saying Ethiopia is a vital partner of the U.S. and the war on terrorism.

As Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has put it, it shouldn't be treated by Capitol Hill like a banana republic.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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