Ethiopia’s opposition Blue Party, which yesterday held the country’s largest protests in eight years, said it’s planning more demonstrations unless the state meets demands including the release of “political” prisoners.
About 4,000 people demonstrated near government buildings yesterday in the capital, Addis Ababa, according to State Minister of Communications Shimeles Kemal. Most of those who took part in the peaceful protest were Islamist extremists, he said in a phone interview today from the city.
The Blue Party is demanding the release of journalists and political leaders convicted on terrorism charges, Getaneh Balcha, head of organizational affairs, said in a phone interview today. Religious leaders being tried for terrorism offenses should also be freed and the state should take steps to combat high inflation and corruption by officials, he said.
“We are protesting for our freedom,” Getaneh said. More protests will be held if the government fails to address the party’s demands within the next three months, he said.
The demonstration yesterday was the biggest since 2005, when government opponents protested over the outcome of a disputed election, leading to the deaths of at least 193 people in a crackdown by security forces. In 2009, Ethiopia introduced anti-terror legislation that has been used against opposition politicians and reporters and which has been criticized by the U.S. and the United Nations.
“It’s good we break the fear,” Telayneh Adugna, 63, said in an interview at the demonstration yesterday. “Breaking the fear is no small thing.”
Opposition politicians and journalists including online writer Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye, former deputy editor of the defunct Awramba Times, were convicted last year under the terrorism law for crimes including trying to incite anti-government protests and links to banned groups.
Members of a committee formed to ask the government to stop unconstitutional interference in Islamic affairs are on trial for terrorism charges. Protesters have gathered at mosques regularly after Friday prayers for more than 18 months to protest the interference and the arrests.
More than 90 percent of the demonstrators yesterday were Muslim, Shimeles said. While the party has a right to protest, organizers will be held responsible for breaking the law, he said.
“If it’s a serious encroachment that requires legal response then they may be held responsible,” he said.
The demands for on-trial suspects to be released and the mixing of religion and politics are unconstitutional in Ethiopia, which is a secular and democratic state, Shimeles said.
All Ethiopians are allowed to demonstrate for their rights, Getaneh said. “This government always says peaceful protests are terrorist acts,” he said.