Charges against Ethiopian-born journalists should be dropped, diplomat says

The government should drop treason, genocide and other charges against five Ethiopian-born journalists of the Voice of America, an American diplomat said Thursday. Ethiopia should have discussed directly with U.S. officials any concerns it had about the work of the five journalists instead of charging them in court, said Vicki Huddleston, the U.S. embassy's charges d'affaires.

Nigussie Mengesha, Addisu Abebe, Tizita Belachew, Adanech Fessehaye and Solomon Kifle, who have been charged in absentia because they are based in Washington, are among 129 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers who face charges that stem from violence that erupted in November during protests over the disputed May 15 elections that returned Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power.

"We are very concerned about the indictment against the VOA (Voice of America) personnel, who are U.S. government personnel," Huddleston told journalists. "If the government has an issue with VOA (Voice of America) it needs to be taken up directly with the U.S. government and the embassy, not in a court of law. We believe that the charges against the VOA (Voice of America staff members) should be dropped." On Wednesday, the Federal High Court denied bail to the 129 suspects, some of who have been in prison since Nov. 1, when the government began a crackdown affecting independent media, opposition politicians and human rights activists in an effort to crush the violent protests in which at least 46 people were killed.

In similar protests in June, 42 people died. The protests began after the main opposition parties accused authorities of rigging the polls that returned the governing party to office.

Huddleston said that the trial of the 129 people could further divide Ethiopian society.

"The trial tends to be a divisive element," she said. "What is needed is reconciliation and communication ... We would like to see better access to legal counsel and a speedier process."

The trial could drag on because Ethiopia's court system is slow and inefficient, with high profile ones such as those involving the country's former military rulers still continuing from when they began in 1994. I.L.

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