(OPride) – A U.S. panel on religious freedom on Monday called on Ethiopian government to release 29 religious freedom advocates, including members of the Committee of 17, detained a year ago.
The twenty-nine defendants, including the wife the former minister of civil service Junedin Saddo, were charged last October under the Horn of Africa country’s Anti-Terror law for “intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts.”
“We are deeply concerned that Ethiopia’s government is seeking to silence peaceful religious freedom proponents by detaining and trying them in secret under trumped-up terrorism charges. They should be released now and their trials halted,” said Katrina Lantos Swett , Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“When USCIRF was in Ethiopia in December 2012, we met with lawyers for the 29 who reported that their clients had been tortured and experienced other ill-treatment in detention. Since then, the Commission has expressed concern about a February 2013 program, Jihadawi Harekat (Holy War Movement). This program, which the government aired on Ethiopian TV and portrayed the protesters and those arrested as terrorists, could prejudice the outcome of their trial.”
The commission’s statement also called on the U.S. government to strongly advocate for the respect of “the defendants’ religious freedom and human and due process rights.”
Ethiopia, a U.S. ally on the war on terror, says its muslim community is being radicalized by foreign elements. The government’s attempt, which began in late 2011, to impose the teachings of Al-Habash, a sunni sect with Lebanese origin, through a systematic indoctrination campaign backfired, offsetting a protest movement that continues to date.
The U.S. Commission accused Ethiopia for arresting peaceful Muslim protesters and advocates. Muslims make up about a third of the population in Ethiopia. Thousands of Muslims across the country have staged weekly mosque sit-ins and street protests for nearly two years. The protesters accuse the government, among other things, of interfering in the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council by handpicking political operatives as leaders of the country’s highest Muslim Affairs body.
In a similar statement last year, USCIRF said “repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence.”