A government crackdown in Ethiopia, following a wave of political unrest, has left opposition politicians, journalists, intellectuals and aid officials behind bars, even though the government of President Meles Zenawi has released some detainees under international pressure.
Ato Daniel Bekele, the policy manager for ActionAid International in Ethiopia, was detained in his home in Addis Ababa, the capital, on Nov. 1. He remains in custody, although no charges have been filed against him, according to Sandy Krawitz, a spokeswoman for the group's U.S. branch, based in Washington.
"ActionAid expresses our ongoing concern for the unwarranted detention of Ato Daniel Bekele," Krawitz said Tuesday. "If charges are to be made, they should be brought forth quickly. Otherwise, he should be released."
ActionAid and its local partners provide a range of assistance to countries, including emergency relief, health and educational aid, and civil society promotion, such as voter education projects. "We take no sides, we just support the democratic process," Krawitz said.
However, Bekele, who is a lawyer, had criticized the government openly for not honoring the constitution and suppressing dissent. He was arrested during a second wave of protests over parliamentary elections in May, after government opponents alleged that the ruling party had stolen the vote.
At least 80 people have been reported killed in clashes between authorities and demonstrators in June and earlier this month. In the latest confrontation, ActionAid and others said, police fired into crowds of demonstrators with live ammunition, killing 46. The aid group said a girl of 7 lost an eye and a boy of 11 was shot in the stomach.
Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa, receiving about $800 million a year, including $500 million worth of food assistance, according to the State Department. The Bush administration has sought the Meles government's help in its war against terrorism.
On Friday, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, global human rights and international operations, introduced a bill seeking to hold Ethiopia accountable on human rights, democracy and economic freedoms. The bill says the police, courts and prison systems do not "effectively uphold the human and civil rights of the citizens of Ethiopia." It also objects to the continued incarceration of journalists.
"The administration has called Ethiopia an anchor country . . . important vis-a-vis U.S. foreign policy in Africa. What we need to do is to help Ethiopians back from the brink that this crisis is pushing them toward," said Greg Simkins, a staff member of the subcommittee.
A spokesman for the Ethiopian Embassy, Mesfin Endrias, said that the government was taking action to probe the political violence and that the May elections had been conducted properly and fairly.
"There was an election and the national election board has issued its full result. The country is not on the verge of collapse," he said Tuesday. "Parties should work together. Everyone has a stake here." He added that Ethiopia's Parliament had formed an independent body to investigate the recent violence. "Everybody should wait," Endrias said.
In addition to political opponents, ActionAid and others said the government has targeted civil society organizations and nongovernmental groups.
"The United States believed that the Ethiopian government was supporting it in the war on terror, but that government is terrorizing its own people in the street," said Mesfin Mekonen, an activist from the Ethiopian Americans Council who has been lobbying Congress to pass Smith's legislation on behalf of the Ethiopian opposition.
Mekonen said the opposition supports land reforms and privatization of plots. He said certain public companies, acting as fronts for private interests, monopolize land ownership and provide fertilizer and other agricultural assistance only to farmers who support the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Although the climate of democratization has improved somewhat, the same group has held power since the overthrow of President Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
In letters to the country's National Electoral Board, European Union election monitors have accused the government of violence and political intimidation. Two weeks before Bekele was arrested, ActionAid reported, he was attacked by two gunmen, believed to be government agents. Fikre Zewdie, ActionAid's country director for Ethiopia, told the Voice of America that Bekele was not involved in any protests this month.
Under Ethiopia's constitution, detainees must be accused and taken before a judge within 48 hours of their arrest.