27 December, 2009

Ethiopian dissidents sentenced to death

A court in Ethiopia has sentenced to death people accused of plotting to stage a coup against the government. Among those sentenced was Melaku Tefera, a prominent opposition politician. The Ethiopian state has accused the plotters of being part of a sinister dissident group associated with the exiled former mayor of Addis Ababa, Berhanu Nega. The alleged coup plotters were partly convicted on the basis of confessions. Judge Adem Ibrahim rejected their claims that the confessions were extracted under torture. The accused are appealing their sentences and the verdicts.

Ethiopia retains the form of a multi-party democracy, but it has been assuming an increasingly overt authoritarian path over the last number of years. The last general elections in 2005 became a farce when the government announced victory before the votes could be counted, and then used lethal force to clear protesters from the street. Opposition leaders were then arrested and held in jail until they signed confessions admitting to fomenting riots. The government did allow the election of Berhanu Nega as mayor of Addis Ababa, but then arrested him, charged him with treason, and eventually obliged him to leave the country. Ethiopia is apparently going to be holding new elections in 2010. It will be interesting to see whether anyone bothers contesting them, given the government’s clear determination to remain in office no matter which way the vote goes.

That said, for all the incipient authoritarianism of the Ethiopian regime, they government do not seem to be the kind of Stalinist maniacs seen in neighbouring Eritrea. And for all that Ethiopia is desperately poor, its state sector does not seem to be as grotesquely dysfunctional as that of Somalia or even as obviously crooked as that of Kenya. That is partly what is so frustrating about Ethiopia – for all its poverty, the country has a lot going for it, but it seems unable to deliver the goods. At least part of the fault for this must be laid at the feet of the government, who seem more determined to perpetuate themselves in office rather than address the country’s problems.

Ethiopia death sentences over assassination plot (BBC)

21 December, 2009

There's No Other Way

I was saying recently that a precondition for any real advance in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the USA being clearly willing to put real pressure on Israel. I do not think that is the only condition – some kind of resolution of the Palestinians' internal political issues is probably also required. By that I mean that some kind of unified Palestinian government (or negotiating team) is required, or that somehow a Palestinian negotiating team with the legitimacy* to make deals on behalf of the Palestinians is required (PA President Mahmoud Abbas does not have that legitimacy). But, even with the emergence of a credible Palestinian interlocutor, I still believe that no progress can be made if the USA is unwilling to play hard-ball Israel.

This is a fairly depressing view. Virtually unconditional support for Israel is effectively a core value of the United States, one that has persisted across any number of administrations. For all his big talk about reaching out to the Arab world, Barack Obama is now falling into the old patterns of putting minimal (if any) pressure on Israel. I do not think there is likely to be any change in the US position at any foreseeable point in the future.

So, does that mean that the Middle East peace process is doomed? If I am correct, then yes it does. But am I correct? Is there another way to advance the quest for a just and lasting settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict? I throw this question to you and await your responses.

*I mean legitimacy to Palestinians. I do not think anyone else should be able to specify who talks on their behalf.

20 December, 2009

Montazeri dies

If I followed Iran a bit more closely I could say interesting things about the death of Hoseyn Ali Montazeri. This Grand Ayatollah was a Shia scholar highly respected as a theologian and an early supporter of the Islamic Revolution, but he fell foul of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 and has lived under house arrest ever since. Montazeri was interesting in that he represented a religious opposition to Khomeini's Republic of Faith, someone who had far more impressive religious credential than Khomeini's successor, the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Montazeri recently criticised the regime after the rigged presidential election earlier this year.

There are suggestions that reformists in Iran may use Montazeri's funeral as an opportunity to stage protests.

Montazeri obituary

Crowds gather to mourn reformist Iran cleric Montazeri

18 December, 2009

The Forbidden Laptop

Israeli Border Police have shot the laptop of a visiting American student. Lily Sussman was travelling in from Egypt when she was stopped and subjected to a series of bizarre questions for several hours. The Kafka-esque approach of the Israeli Border Police will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited Israel, but blasting a few caps into a laptop (just to be on the safe side, presumably) seems a bit extreme, even for them.

Police shoot U.S. student's laptop upon entry to Israel (Haaretz)
I’m sorry but we blew up your laptop (welcome to Israel) (Ms Sussman’s blog)