By ANTHONY MITCHELL
The Associated Press
Wednesday, October 18, 2006; 6:36 AM
NAIROBI, Kenya -- Ethiopian security forces massacred 193 people _triple the official death toll _ during anti-government protests following elections last year, a senior judge appointed to investigate the violence said Wednesday.
Unarmed protesters were shot, beaten and strangled to death, said Wolde-Michael Meshesha, who was vice chairman of a government-backed inquiry but said he has fled the country after receiving threats. He said he believed the Ethiopian government was trying to cover up the findings.
Ethiopian officials refused to comment on the claims.
"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," said Wolde-Michael, who left the country last month after receiving anonymous death threats, leaving his wife and five daughters behind. He is now claiming asylum in Europe and would not disclose his exact whereabouts out of fear for his safety.
Last year's elections were followed by a government crackdown on its opposition and increasing questions about its commitment to democracy.
A draft of the inquiry team's report, which was to have been presented to the Ethiopian parliament in early July and has since been obtained by the AP, says among those killed were 40 teenagers, including a boy and a girl, both 14. The two were fatally shot.
Six policemen were also killed in the June and November 2005 riots, bringing the overall death toll to 199. Some 763 people were injured, the report adds. Wolde-Michael says the figures could be higher because many people were too afraid to speak out.
The government claimed at the time that 35 civilians and seven police were killed in November and that in June, 26 people were killed.
Ana Gomes, who was the European Union's chief observer during the May 2005 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."
Wolde-Michael and the other commissioners spent six months interviewing more than 600 people, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, police officers, witnesses, and other government officials.
According to Wolde-Michael, Meles said he did not authorize police to use live bullets.
The inquiry's mandate was to determine whether excessive force was used. In early July, shortly before completing its report, the team held a vote and ruled eight to two that excessive force was used.
The vote and comments of the commission members were recorded on video, a copy of which has also been obtained by the AP.
"Many people were killed arbitrarily," inquiry chairman and supreme court judge Frehiwot Samuel, who is also believed to have fled Ethiopia, was heard saying on the video. "Old men were killed while in their homes and children were also victims of the attack while playing in the garden."
An Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Estatiose Gebrekristos, was recorded as saying, "Based on my eyes, ears and knowledge the actions taken were 100 percent wrong."
But two of the commission members said the government responded appropriately.
"I consider the motives of the protesters was to overthrow the government," Elias Redman, vice president of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council, said on the video. "I therefore fully support the action taken by the police."
The prime minister said at the time that demonstrators were trying to overthrow his government in an Ukraine-style revolution. Prior to the unrest he had banned all demonstrations and announced on state television he had put security forces under his direct control.
Wolde-Michael, who was appointed a judge by the current government in 1994, said the inquiry team came under intense pressure once the ruling party learned of its findings.
Electricity to their offices was cut and at one point their office was surrounded by security forces, he said. The team was also summoned by the prime minister, two days before the report was to be released, and told to reverse its findings, Wolde-Michael added.
Wolde-Michael said police records he saw showed 20,000 people were rounded up during the anti-government protests.
Of them more than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers are on trial for treason and attempted genocide.
Meles was once thought to be one of Africa's more progressive leaders. However his reputation suffered in the aftermath of the elections. The EU and U.S. Carter Center expressed serious concerns over the vote.
In January of this year, Britain withheld $87 million in aid because of concerns about the government's handling of the unrest.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and more than half of its 77 million people live on less than $1 a day.