193 Protesters Said Killed in Ethiopia

The Associated Press
Wednesday, October 18, 2006; 2:02 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ethiopian security forces fatally shot, beat or strangled 193 people protesting election fraud last year, triple the official death toll, a senior judge appointed to investigate the violence said Wednesday.

Wolde-Michael Meshesha, a vice chairman of the 10-member inquiry, accused the government of trying to suppress the results of the probe amid sharp questions about Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's commitment to democratic reform.

Ethiopian officials refused to comment on the claims. The prime minister and other officials said at the time demonstrators were trying to overthrow the government.

"This was a massacre," Wolde-Michael said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "These demonstrators were unarmed yet the majority died from shots to the head."

"There is no doubt that excessive force was used," added the judge, who left Ethiopia last month after receiving anonymous death threats, leaving his wife and five daughters behind. He is claiming asylum in Europe and would not disclose his exact whereabouts out of fear for his safety.

A draft of the inquiry team's report, which was to have been presented to the Ethiopian parliament in July and has been obtained by the AP, said among those killed were 40 teenagers, including a boy and a girl, both 14. The two were shot.

Six policemen also were killed in the June and November 2005 riots, bringing the overall death toll to 199, the report said. More than 750 people were injured, the report added. Wolde-Michael said the figures could be higher because many people were too afraid to speak out.

The government claimed at the time that 26 people were killed in June and 35 civilians and seven police were killed in November. According to Wolde-Michael, Meles said he did not authorize police to use live bullets.

Wolde-Michael also said he saw police records showing that 20,000 people were rounded up during the protests. More than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers are on trial for treason and attempted genocide.

The unrest followed May 2005 parliamentary elections that gave Meles' Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. Opposition parties said the election was marred by fraud, intimidation and violence.

Ana Gomes, who was the European Union's chief observer during the elections, told the AP the report "exposes the lie" that the Ethiopian government is moving toward democracy.

"It is time the EU and U.S. realize that the current regime in Ethiopia is repressing the people because it lacks democratic legitimacy and is actually weak," she said by e-mail after reading the report. "It is driving Ethiopia to more poverty, conflict and war."

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