Opposition leader Bekele Jirate freed

By Barry Malone – Feb 4, 2009 –ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – A leading Ethiopian opposition politician was freed on bail on Wednesday after he was jailed last November after the government accused him of working with rebels, his party said.

Bekele Jirate, 54, a top official with the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), was accused by the authorities of working “hand-in-glove” with insurgents like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

“I am very happy because not only is he important for our party, he is innocent,” OFDM leader Bulcha Demeksa told Reuters. He said no date had been set for Bekele’s trial. The OFDM said another leading opposition politician remains in solitary confinement.

The OLF is one of several rebel groups in the Horn of Africa nation and has been fighting for independence for the southern Oromo region since 1993.

Opposition groups accuse Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government of harassment, and the OFDM says the security forces have jailed hundreds of ethnic Oromos in recent months. The government denies it.

Bulcha called for the immediate release of Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge who heads the newly created Unity for Democracy and Justice party. She has been in solitary confinement since December and went on hunger strike for 13 days last month.

Regional analysts consider the 34-year-old to be the country’s foremost opposition figure.

“She has been jailed because she is a very strong and serious contender to Prime Minister Meles,” Bulcha said.

Birtukan was first jailed after elections in 2005 ended in street violence that killed 199 civilians. She was pardoned in 2007 after she agreed, along with other opposition leaders, to take responsibility for the unrest.

She was rearrested after refusing to retract a speech made in Sweden last year in which she denied she was involved in the talks that led to her release.

The OFDM accused the government of intimidation as voters went to the polls last April for the first time since the 2005 bloodshed. It said almost all its nominees for the local elections had been threatened and forced to pull out of the race. Ethiopia will hold parliamentary elections next year.

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