By Barry Malone, June 15 (Reuters) – A group of men accused of plotting to topple Ethiopia’s government were tortured in prison during lengthy interrogations, relatives said on Monday.
At a pre-trial hearing in Addis Ababa, a judge refused a request from a lawyer for one of the 32 men for a doctor chosen by the families to visit the detainees in prison to compile a report on any injuries.
The arrest of the group in the biggest such crackdown for several years has worried rights group, who say Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government has become increasingly authoritarian and tough on any critics in the Horn of Africa nation.
Officials say the group planned bombs and assassinations.
At Monday’s hearing, the judge said the group had access to a prison doctor, which was adequate. Some members of the group discussed with the judge how, with their meagre means, they should hire lawyers. A few threw waves and smiles at relatives.
After the hearing, three family members told Reuters suspects had spoken of mistreatment in jail.
“Some of them have been tortured and are injured,” one relative, who asked not to be named, said outside court. “They have been interrogated for up to nineteen hours. One man with injuries to his penis had to be treated in hospital.”
Lawyers said five of the group were being held in solitary confinement. The 32 accused were mainly former and current army personnel, including two generals.
A Government spokesman said the allegations were “baseless”.
“They have the right to relate any indignities they allege they have suffered openly in court,” Shimeles Kemal said. “If this had been the case, they would have, but they didn’t.”
The government has identified only two of the prisoners despite calls by rights groups to give all the names.
Another 14 people, some resident in the United States and Britain, have been charged in absentia.
The government says the accused, arrested more than a month ago, belonged to a “terror network” formed by Berhanu Nega, an opposition leader who teaches economics in the United States.
Berhanu denies the accusations.
Addis Ababa says the group had planned to kill senior government officials and blow up power and telecommunications facilities to provoke protesters who would then march on government buildings and attempt to topple the government.
Opposition parties have called the charges trumped-up.
Security forces killed about 200 protesters after elections in 2005 when the opposition disputed the government’s victory. The next national election is due in 2010.
Berhanu was elected mayor of the capital Addis Ababa in the 2005 ballot, but was arrested and accused of orchestrating the street protests. He was pardoned and released in 2007.
His “May 15th” organisation was named after the date of the 2005 poll. He has made statements in the United States saying it wants to overthrow Meles’ government.
The Ethiopian government says the plotters received money to buy weapons from Berhanu and other diaspora opposition members.
The accused will appear in court again on June 30th. (Editing by Matthew Jones)