Ethiopia PM defends arrest of opposition leader

February 14, 2009

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said the arrest of the country’s opposition leader was not a political decision, arguing the authorities were left with no other choice.

Authorities arrested and sentenced Birtukan Midekssa to life in prison in January after she reportedly said she never expressed remorse to obtain a pardon in 2007. She was given three days to deny or confirm the reports.

“We were put in an almost impossible situation politically and legally. The law says if a pardon is given under false pretenses it has to be annulled,” Meles told journalists late Friday.

The Ethiopian leader accused Birtukan of banking on support from “powerful friends in powerful positions” — presumably Western nations — when she made the comments during a recent trip to Sweden and Germany.

“Had we indulged on her assumptions the message that we would have conveyed would be ‘nothing happens to you no matter what you do. If you have friends in all the right places, you can ride roughshod with everything’,” Meles said.

“That message I think is a very dangerous political message to convey in an emerging democracy. The rule of law and equality involves everyone.”

Birtukan, the head of the Unity for Democracy Justice party, had been detained with dozens of opposition figures and supporters following disputed 2005 elections.

The United States, a staunch Ethiopian ally and the country’s top aid contributor, has expressed concern over the arrest and called for more political freedom in the Horn of Africa nation.

Birtukan’s party made its most spectacular electoral gains ever in the 2005 polls and cried foul over reported fraud, claiming it was robbed of victory by Zenawi’s ruling party.

The ensuing unrest left close to 200 people dead and drew international condemnation.

Ethiopia’s next general elections are expected to be held in 2010.