The Washington Post

Stumbling Blocks and a Move to Help Ethiopia's Young Democracy

By Nora Boustany

Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A14

As democratic currents flow through the nearby Middle East, Ethiopia is trying to overcome its own hurdles as a nascent democracy.

Government-backed killings of opposition party members, as well as officially sanctioned detentions, disappearances and attacks, have marred the run-up to national legislative elections in May and have compromised the democratic process that began with free elections in 2000.

And the violence is beginning to resonate in Washington.

A major Human Rights Watch report issued in January charged the Ethiopian government with continuing to "deny many of its citizens' basic human rights."

Describing instances of police brutality, torture and illegal detention, the report also accused the government of harassing and in some cases killing political foes.

The U.S. State Department human rights report released on Monday echoed those charges, and both documents cited harassment of and restrictions on independent journalists and publishers.

According to Human Rights Watch, "The continuous intolerance of dissent on the part of many officials raises serious concerns as to whether opposition candidates will be able to contest [the May 15] poll in an environment free of fear."

Last week, a bipartisan House resolution was introduced by Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.), vice chairman of the International Relations subcommittee on Africa, urging the government in Addis Ababa to address the obstacles to the democratic process. The legislation could be debated in coming weeks.

"I have introduced HR 935, legislation that offers Ethiopia the guidance, assistance and tools it needs to improve its national electoral system," Honda said in a letter to colleagues. "The bill authorizes funding for USAID to educate Ethiopians about their democratic rights and responsibilities."

"We really think it is going to be passed soon," said Mesfin Mekonon , the Washington representative for the Ethiopian-American Council. Mekonon has worked for months to get the attention of American legislators.

U.S. military personnel based in Djibouti trained an Ethiopian army division in counter-terrorism two years ago; there are suspicions that extremist Islamic groups are hiding near the Somalia-Ethiopia border.