July 16, 2013 (ADDIS ABABA) – Authorities in Addis Ababa have arrested dozens of members and supporters of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, an Ethiopian opposition group, locally known as Andnet.
The arrests were made on Monday in the Ethiopian capital after the group held two protest rallies in the towns of Gondar and Dessie in the Amhara region.
“Security forces arrested 42 UDJ members and supporters in Addis Ababa”, the party’s chairman and a former Ethiopian president, Negasso Gidada, told Sudan Tribune.
All those arrested were freed on Tuesday, Sudan Tribune understands.
According to Gidada, an estimated 90,000 people joined the demonstrations over the weekend, which called for the release of jailed politicians and journalists, as well as demanding political reform.
“We are demanding the release of our members, as well as all other political prisoners being detained under the pretext of terrorism”, Gidada said.
The opposition official said his party will continue to conduct similar protests in different parts of the country until the government meets their demands.
He said protests will continue in many major cities in the coming weeks before a bigger demonstration is held in early September in Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian government has dismissed the protesters’ demands and said calls to release convicted prisoners were unacceptable.
Shemeles Kemal, the government’s spokesperson, described the protesters as “Islamic extremists” who are using politics to interfere in religious matters.
Responding to Kemal’s allegations, Gidada told Sudan Tribune that the government was trying to shift the focus away from its human rights record.
“Our party doesn’t encourage Islamic extremism and our leaders are not terrorists”, Gidada said, adding that the “UDJ is a legally recognised political organisation demanding for the fundamental and constitutional rights of all the people, including for the end of government interference in Muslim religious affairs”.
Ethiopian opposition groups and international human rights organisations have long accused Addis Ababa of using anti-terrorism legislation as a weapon to stifle peaceful dissent.
Since the law was endorsed in 2009, the East African nation has seen large-scale arrests of opposition members and critical journalists, as well as the shutdown of independent press.
The UDJ party recently launched a “Millions of Voices for Freedom” campaign to put pressure on the government to make fundamental changes, including reform of the unpopular anti-terror law.
Last month, the Semeyawi [Blue] party held a demonstration in Addis Ababa, calling for similar changes and giving the government a three-month ultimatum for its demands to be met. Failure to address their grievances would result in further demonstrations, the group said.