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(London) – The Ethiopian government should immediately release two ethnic Oromo political opposition leaders detained on what appear to be politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Journalists told Human Rights Watch that as many as 20 other Oromos who were picked up in Addis Ababa and the Oromia region over the weekend are also being held.

Ethiopian authorities arrested Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the opposition Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM), and Olbana Lelisa, a spokesman for the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC), on August 27, 2011, in Addis Ababa. A government spokesperson announced that Gerba had been arrested by an anti-terrorism task force and is accused of having links with the banned rebel armed group, the Oromo Liberation Front.

“The arrest of these Oromo leaders appears to be a prime example of the government using the anti-terrorism law to silence the opposition,” said Ben Rawlence, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately release Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa unless there are credible charges against them.”

Both men appeared in court and are being held without charge under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in Malekawi prison. They have not had access to lawyers or family members and opposition party colleagues, sources familiar with the circumstances told Human Rights Watch.

Gerba is the latest and most high-profile critic of the government to be detained under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. At least two members of other opposition political parties as well as four journalists have been held in pre-trial detention under the law since June.

An opposition member interviewed by Voice of America radio asserted that Gerba was arrested for providing information to human rights investigators about people detained for assisting BBC journalists to produce a report which described torture and withholding development aid as weapons the government uses against opposition political party members.

The OFDM and OPC are legally registered opposition parties. However both parties and their members have faced repeated harassment and intimidation. In March, the authorities arrested more than 100 members of the two parties during mass roundups. Those arbitrarily arrested and detained included former members of parliament, long-serving party officials, and candidates in the 2010 regional and parliamentary elections.

Oromo political opponents have often been accused of links to the banned Oromo Liberation Front. In June, the Ethiopian parliament officially designated the Oromo Liberation Front, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and the diaspora opposition movement Ginbot-7 as proscribed terrorist organizations.

In April, the authorities threatened members of the Oromo political opposition with potential charges under the country’s anti-terrorism law.The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation contains a very broad definition of terrorist acts that the government appears to be using to restrict peaceful protest and free expression, Human Rights Watch said. The law also violates basic due process rights by providing, among other things, for the detention of suspects for up to four months before charges are brought.

“The Ethiopian authorities’ increasing use of the overbroad terrorism law to detain and intimidate the peaceful opposition is alarming,” Rawlence said. “Filling up Ethiopia’s jails with political prisoners is not the solution to dealing with legitimate criticism.”


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