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Zenawi Demise Chance for Tolerant Ethiopia

Published: 22/08/2012 08:19:01 AM GMT
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ADDIS ABABA - Condemned for stifling oppression on claims of fighting extremism, the death of Ethiopia's long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is seen a chance for new horizons for freedoms and tolerance in the east Africa (more)

ADDIS ABABA - Condemned for stifling oppression on claims of fighting extremism, the death of Ethiopia's long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is seen a chance for new horizons for freedoms and tolerance in the east African country.

"The 21 years of Meles Zenawi's rule were characterized by ever-increasing repression and widespread human rights violations," Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"The government and the next Prime Minister should take the opportunity for change represented by the succession of Meles Zenawi to move towards a greater respect for human rights."

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Zenawi, who rose to power in 1991, died in Brussels on Tuesday, August 21 from an undisclosed illness.

"To be sick is human and he has been struggling to be healthy in the last year," government spokesman Bereket Simon told reporters in the capital, Addis Ababa.

"He has been diligently delivering on his promises - illness has never been a hindrance," the spokesman said.

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament and the ruling party will meet to choose a successor.

Zenawi had seized power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta and went on to become a towering political figure on the continent.

He was seen by the West as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

US President Barack Obama offered condolences over Zenawi's death, saying his demise was an "untimely loss" for Ethiopia.

British Prime Minister David Cameron described him as an "inspirational spokesman for Africa".

But Zenawi was criticized by human rights groups for stifling opposition on claims of fighting extremism.

He rounded up numerous opposition leaders after the disputed 2005 polls and several opponents and journalists have been arrested under a 2009 anti-terrorism law.

"Today is a day of joy for most Ethiopians and all freedom loving people around the world," opposition website Ethiopian Review said, describing Meles as a "genocidal tyrant".

New Era

Rights groups have called for a new era of freedoms and tolerance in post-Zenawi Ethiopia.

"Ethiopia's leadership should demonstrate its commitment to human rights reform by taking urgent steps to amend or repeal some of the most damaging legislation, including its anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on civil society,” Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch's deputy Africa director, told AFP.

“It should release the scores of political prisoners who are unlawfully detained and make clear that the transition will result in a meaningful opening of political space.”

Critics say the Ethiopian government has used the anti-terrorism law to quash freedom of speech and peaceful political dissent.

“Freedom of information suffered many setbacks under Meles Zenawi,” Reporters Without Borders told AFP.

“We hope the next prime minister will understand the need to release journalists who are being held unjustly, as their detention is seriously damaging Ethiopia's image.”

In the last days of Zenawi's rule, Ethiopia was rocked by massive protests by Muslims over government interference in religious affairs.

Muslims say the government is spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the umbrella Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".

The Zenawi's government has put the Ahbash in charge of the religious affairs of Ethiopia's Muslims.

Muslims say the government move is in violation of the constitution, which prevents the government interference in religious affairs.

Muslims also accuse the Ahbash of launching an "indoctrination program" in predominantly Muslim areas, forcing people to attend "religious training" camps or risk police interrogation and possible arrest.

Founded by Ethiopian-Lebanese scholar Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, Ahbash is seen by the West as a "friendly alternative" to Wahabi ideology, which the West sees as extreme and militant.

Muslims say Ahbash imams are being brought over from Lebanon to fill the Majlis and teach Ethiopians that “Wahabis” are non-Muslims.Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia's population.

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