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November 1st, 2006 Julie Sabatier | News Stories
 

Out Of Africa

Portlanders shine a spotlight on the Ethiopian crisis.

     
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PORTLAND FREELANCE JOURNALIST Jake Thomas interviews Ethiopians recently at a displaced-persons camp outside Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia.
Add U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer to the growing list of Portlanders trying to do something about a recent, harrowing report of human-rights violations in Ethiopia.

"This Ethiopian tragedy is a slow train wreck," says Blumenauer, who last week joined two other House lawmakers in demanding that Speaker Dennis Hastert schedule a vote on a bill designed to pressure the Ethiopian government to release political prisoners.

An internal Ethiopian Commission of Inquiry report leaked to the media Oct. 19 confirmed the 193 unarmed demonstrators were killed and 793 more seriously injured in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, following elections in May 2005. The report says thousands are being held without charge more than a year after an election that European observers say was manipulated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi so that his party—the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF—remained in power.

Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has joined with Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) in a bipartisan insistence that Hastert let the bill, HR 5680, come up for a House vote when Congress reconvenes next month.

If Ethiopia's troubles seem distant to some, they're definitely not to Portland's growing Ethiopian community.

"This [current government] is worse than the military dictatorship that ended in 1991," said Lulit Mesfin, who was born in Ethiopia but has been living in Portland since 1978. She says her position agitating for human rights in Portland as part of the Ethiopian American Council means she cannot go back to Ethiopia to visit her aging mother while Zenawi remains in power.

The House International Relations Committee passed HR 5680 by voice vote, but backers worry the bill may not advance because the Bush administration considers Ethiopia and its current government to be a key ally in the "war on terror."

Among the concerned are Portland freelance journalists Don Lieber and Jake Thomas (a former WW intern). They recently visited refugee camps and met with political prisoners to get firsthand accounts of the human-rights violations that continue to plague the country.

Both Thomas and Lieber say HR 5680 would pressure Ethiopia's prime minister and help to curb rising anti-U.S. sentiments among Ethiopia's population of 77 million. "[Ethiopia] can quickly become a breeding ground for resentment towards the United States," Lieber adds.

 
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