Ethiopian opposition parties say nearly 450 of their members have been jailed to stop them running as candidates in national elections in May next year.
Documents given to Reuters by four opposition parties listed the prisoners’ names, the dates on which they were arrested and the jails in which they were being held.
One party, the All Ethiopia Unity Organisation (AEUO), has recorded seven murders of members over the last 12 months that it says were politically motivated.
“These jailings are to stop our members running in elections,” Gizachew Shiferaw, deputy leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, told Reuters. “It has become a strategy for the ruling party. Ethiopia is a one-party state.”
Most analysts say the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will easily win the 2010 elections but opposition parties say that is because government harassment will stop their members contesting.
The authorities strongly deny the claims and say only criminals have been arrested.
“Nobody has been imprisoned or killed for political activity, to my knowledge,” Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information, told Reuters, adding that the authorities would further investigate the documented names.
“Our preliminary investigation indicates that these people are engaged in real crime,” he said. “We can’t release criminals because they are opposition members.”
No chance of winning
Bereket said the opposition was trying to discredit the electoral process because they realised they had no chance of winning in 2010. This week, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and three opposition parties agreed a set of rules for the elections.
Police and soldiers shot dead about 200 protesters after the opposition accused the government of rigging elections in 2005.
Along with the AEUO and the UDJ, the other two parties who gave Reuters lists of detainees were the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo Peoples’ Congress, who have been refused permission to form an alliance.
Most of those listed are ethnic Oromos who, despite being Ethiopia’s largest group, have not held power in modern times.
Meles comes from the Tigryan ethnic group, who make up only 6 % of the population but dominate the political elite.
Another three parties told Reuters members were regularly arrested and held briefly to scare them off registering for the polls. Those parties have not yet begun documenting the cases.
Photographs seen by Reuters show vandalised buildings in small towns outside the capital Addis Ababa that the opposition says are their regional offices.
Ethiopia has never had a peaceful transition of power. Meles took over in 1991 after a rebel group led by him and others overthrew a communist regime.
Pic: Ethiopian Prime Minister- Meles Zenawi