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Why Ethiopia's authoritarian style gets a Western nod

Ethiopia is a geostrategically important ally in the West's efforts to battle extremism in the Horn of Africa. Western leaders have also emphasized its progress in battling poverty.

By William DavisonCorrespondent / February 10, 2012

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 26.

Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopia's recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government's antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes.

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Despite its status as a donor darling, Ethiopia's government is, once again, doing little to encourage the attentions of its Western suitors.

Often using a 2009 antiterrorism law, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's administration has prosecuted scores of opposition figures and a handful of journalists over the past year. Most are accused of links with banned groups, such as the US-based Ginbot 7, whose leaders gave up hopes of unseating Mr. Meles at the ballot box after the disastrous fallout from a 2005 poll.

Rights groups are unanimous in their condemnation. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," Amnesty International said about a group including three Ethiopian journalists jailed for plotting terror acts last month. "We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government."

While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch consistently slam the government, others have only recently joined the fray. Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed "their dismay at the continuing abuse of antiterrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression."

The world's media have also tuned in. A HRW report detailing coercion and abuse in the resettlement of tens of thousands in the nation's west was widely reported, and Nicholas D. Kristof dedicated a recent column in The New York Times to Ethiopia's treatment of two Swedish journalists caught embedded with a rebel group. "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!" he wrote.

A more-silent West

However, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Ethiopia's Western partners.

On the first day of the Swedes' trial, which resulted in 11-year sentences for entering the country illegally and supporting a terrorist organization, the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, attended, but such provocative gestures are rare from Ethiopia's biggest benefactor.

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