NAIROBI, Kenya – The Ethiopian government has arrested 35 people suspected of a coup attempt allegedly backed by an Ethiopian economist now teaching at a Pennsylvania university, a government spokesman said Saturday.
Government spokesman Ermias Legesse said the group, which calls itself “May 15” after the date of controversial 2005 elections in Ethiopia, was led from the U.S. by former opposition leader Berhanu Nega, who is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University.
“It is the party led by Berhanu Nega,” Ermias said. “If he comes to Ethiopia, we’ll arrest him.”
He said the alleged plotters were arrested Friday.
Interviewed in Lewisburg, Pa., Berhanu, 51, said he had no role in organizing any coup attempt.
“I’m very suspicious that there was an attempt at all,” he said. “This is not a government that has any credibility whatsoever in terms of telling the truth.”
Berhanu was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 but was arrested afterward along with more than 100 other opposition politicians and stood trial for treason. He and the others were freed in 2007 in a pardon deal. He left Ethiopia after the trial.
“It became very clear immediately after our release that they will not at all tolerate any opposition, meaningful opposition,” he said Saturday.
Ermias said the group of suspects arrested Friday was composed of two cliques, one of former soldiers, another of civilians.
“They were caught with weapons, uniforms, even plans,” he said. “I don’t want to give details about the plans; it’s for the court case.”
Ermias said the charges have not been set and court proceedings will begin soon.
“They decided to change the government in an unconstitutional way,” he said.
Asked if he considered violent regime change inevitable, Berhanu said he was still pushing for a peaceful, negotiated solution, but the Ethiopian government was showing “absolute intransigence.”
“When the option becomes freedom (or) living in some sort of slavery, I have no doubt that people will fight for freedom,” he said.
He did not deny raising money in the U.S. for Ethiopian opposition groups.
“All opposition groups raise money in the U.S.,” he said.
He said he hoped the administration of President Barack Obama would realize it is “unseemly” for the U.S. to have any relationship with the Ethiopian regime.
The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said it was marred by irregularities. The election was followed by violent protests. Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud.