Ethiopia Denies Coup Plot, Calls 40 Detainees 'Desperadoes'
By Peter Heinlein, VOA | May 4, 2009
Ethiopia's communications minister Bereket Simon Friday attempted to reverse earlier claims that the government had foiled an attempted coup led by an exiled political leader living in the United States.
Speaking to foreign journalists, Bereket denied the suspects were part of a coup plot. He described those arrested as 'desperadoes" intent on creating havoc.
The intention of these people was not to conduct coup d'etats. We're not implicating them (in) coup d' etats. We know this desperado group was intending to assassinate people and demolish public utilities and that was intended to attack, the attack was intended on the government.
The initial statement announcing the arrest of the first 35 suspects in the case identified them as members of 'Ginbot 7', or 'May 15th', the date of Ethiopia's disputed 2005 election. Ginbot 7 was founded by Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis in that election, but later convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison along with more than 100 other opposition leaders in connection with post-election violence.
Berhanu fled Ethiopia after the opposition leaders were pardoned in 2007. He currently is an economics professor in the U..S state of Pennsylvania. In a VOA interview this week, he reaffirmed Ginbot 7's commitment to removing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government by any means necessary.
He also accused the government of attempting to punish him and other exiled Ginbot 7 leaders by harassing and arresting their relatives still living in Ethiopia.
Communications Minister Bereket Friday suggested the plot was mainly the work of disgruntled current and former military officers, led by an active duty army general. He said the plot was aimed at creating havoc by assassinating government officials and blowing up power plants and other strategic installations as a means of paving the way for 'street actions' such as those that broke out following the 2005 elections.
"Berhanu Nega had been engaged in such activities after the May election. They are also thinking if they know they cannot use the army to conduct coups, but they think they can repeat the street actions we have seen in 2005, so taking a series of assassination attempts, they were attempting to create a favorable ground for such street actions," he said.
Bereket described the tactic as 'terror politics'. While rejecting the use of the term 'coup', he described the goal as the violent overthrow of the government. "They have tried the constitutional means, they failed, and yet they didn't get satisfied with that, and they went out and started declaring armed struggle as a way of overthrowing the constitutionally formed government. So yes, it is terrorist politics, that is not deniable I think," he said.
Bereket said the government would consider asking for the extradition of Berhanu Nega and other exiled Ginbot 7 leaders. Failing that, they might be tried in absentia.
A U.S. embassy spokesperson called the question of extradition 'hypothetical', noting that the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Ethiopia.
Former Ethiopian president Negaso Gidada, now an opposition member of parliament, said regardless of whether or not there was a plot to overthrow the government, the arrests expose widespread public skepticism that elections can express the will of the voters.
"For sure there is not a democratic opening. There is suffocation politically, there will be people who are fed up of the situation and choose to go in a different way, either to armed resistance or coup d'etat and so forth, and as long as the political atmosphere is not open , not democratic there will always be an possibility they will try to solve the situation through armed struggle," he said.
Identities of most of those arrested have not been made public, with the exception of the army general said to have been the head of Ginbot 7's military wing, and a mid-level opposition political activist who was among those imprisoned following the 2005 protests. Authorities say all the accused were brought before a judge over the past week, and were remanded to custody for another 14 days to give prosecutors time to formulate charges against them.
Senior army officers plotted assassinations
ADDIS ABABA (AFP) – Senior military officers in Ethiopia, including a general, had plotted to assassinate top government officials, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said Friday, adding that 40 people were under arrest.
"While six of the suspects were army officers on active duty, including one general, 34 of the suspects were ex-army men expelled from the army on grounds of misconduct," he told a press conference.
Bereket said the plotters belonged to the Ginbot 7 (May 15) opposition group, saying it was linked to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) headed by Berhanu Nega, currently living in the United States.
He said the government believed that the "desperado" group was not planning to stage a coup, but intended "assassinating individuals, high ranking government officials and destroying some public facilities and utilities ... like telecom services and electricity utilities.
"The police have also found evidence implicating some ex-CUD members released on pardon. With the exception of some three or four of the desperado group who are still at large, the police have arrested almost all members of the conspiracy."
Berekt told AFP the government knew about the plot from its inception, adding, "If there had been laxity from the government, there would have been problems."
The mass arrests were reported on Sunday by state media, which said the National Security Taskforce had also found weapons including bombs, computers and communications equipment, military uniforms and documents.
The CUD won an unprecedented number of seats in the May 15, 2005 elections, which the European Union and other observers said fell short of international standards.
Around 200 people died in violence that erupted after the CUD accused the party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of rigging the ballot.
Berhanu, 51, currently a university professor in the United States, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in the polls. He was subsequently jailed for two years along with other leaders of the CUD, and left the country after his release.
Ethiopia's next general election is scheduled to be held in June 2010.
In a statement on its website following the initial reports of arrests Ginbot 7 said it "has no desire to engage in a tit-for-tat with the dictators in Addis Ababa, nor the time to waste replying to baseless accusations by a regime that rules Ethiopia by the barrel of the gun."
"Ginbot 7 remains committed to work for the establishment of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. No amount of scurrilous accusations, threats or blackmail by the regime will deter us from pursuing the cause of democracy and freedom," it added.
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