A draft Ethiopian law could define criticism of the government as a “terrorist act” and be used to crack down on the opposition if it is passed by parliament, a rights group said today.
The draft “anti-terrorism proclamation” was drawn up after the populous country said it faced threats from several internal rebel groups, Reuter`s reports.
A group of 32 mostly former and serving military officers are on trial accused of planning to topple the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“As drafted, the law could provide a new and potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“It could turn political speech and peaceful protest into terrorist acts.”
The law would classify acts that cause serious damage to property or disruption of a public service as terrorism. It would also criminalise speech that may be interpreted as “encouraging terrorism”.
Human Rights Watch urged legislators to redraft the bill.
Ethiopian government head of information, Bereket Simon, said the New York-based group had misinterpreted the law.
“The law is only intended to curb terrorist threats,” Bereket told Reuters. “It fully recognises the right of Ethiopians to engage in any peaceful political activity.”
“Opposition parties have every right to criticise the government.”
Ethiopia will hold national elections in 2010 and the opposition routinely accuses the government of harassment, closing down their offices and intimidating their candidates.
Meles denies that and says the opposition parties are trying to ruin the government’s image.
The 2005 elections billed as Ethiopia’s first truly democratic poll ended in violence when the government claimed victory and the opposition said the vote had been fixed.
About 200 protesters were killed by police and soldiers when they took to the streets.
Jacob Lew, deputy to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited Ethiopia on yesterday and said the US had “every hope” the 2010 poll would be democratic.
Secular Ethiopia is the key US ally in the volatile Horn of Africa region and sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group who controlled the country.