Ethiopia’s government has charged three prominent opposition activists with inciting riots, destroying property and plotting a coup, a government spokesman told AFP on Wednesday.
The allegations come after months of clashes between police and anti-government protesters that killed hundreds and were only quelled after authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency in October.
Those facing charges include Jawar Mohammed, head of the banned Oromia Media Network, and Berhanu Nega, an opposition activist who has already been sentenced to death in a previous trial.
Both men are being charged in absentia since they live outside the country, but a third defendant, Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) Merera Gudina, was arrested in December and will be tried in the capital Addis Ababa.
“These people caused considerable damage and they are responsible for those damages,” said Fentaw Ambaw, public affairs director for Ethiopia’s attorney general.
Members of the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups began protesting in 2015 against the country’s political system, which is dominated by the ruling party of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Last year, protesters in the Oromia region outside the capital began targeting foreign-owned factories they claimed were built on land unfairly taken from them by the government.
The violence threatened to stunt the growth of Ethiopia’s economy, which is one of the continent’s best performers and expanded by nearly 10 percent in 2015.
Mohammed, who lives in the United States, told AFP he has received no formal notice of the accusations against him and does not plan to appear in Ethiopia to defend himself.
He denied instigating the protests, and said he was being targeted for his organisation’s coverage.
“They are meaningless. There is no way they’re going to get us,” Mohammed said of the charges. “The government was very unhappy with the fact that we had sources, we had reporters all over the country getting fresh news and perspectives as it was happening.”
Since the declaration of the state of emergency, Hailemariam has reshuffled his cabinet to include more members of the Oromo ethnicity, and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has started meeting with opposition parties to find a solution to the protests.
But the meetings have not prevented police from arresting political activists, said Yeshiwas Assefa, chairman of the Blue Party, a major opposition group.
More than 70 of his party’s members have been taken into custody since the state of emergency was declared.
“We are asking the government to release our prisoners,” Assefa said. “They are not taking the dialogue seriously.”