A U.S. congressional panel has approved legislation aimed at supporting democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, sending the bill to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. VOA's Dan Robinson has this report from Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers concerned about Ethiopia have faced the choice of taking steps to pressure the government in Addis Ababa, or waiting for Ethiopia's leaders to act on their own to improve the human rights and political atmosphere there.
Last year, legislation to pressure the Ethiopian government failed to reach the full House, as the Bush administration pressured Congress to hold off.
On Wednesday, Congressman Donald Payne referred to news reports that a clemency decision may be imminent for 38 opposition figures, including journalists, sentenced to life in prison and lesser terms.
While he hopes clemency is granted, Payne believes passage of this year's bill is important. "We want to see Ethiopia move back as it has been in the past, a good ally of the U.S, but we can no longer sit by and allow these issues to go without us mentioning them."
The United States, along with European governments and human rights groups, has condemned the sentencing of opposition leaders, and urged political reconciliation in Ethiopia.
State Department human rights official Barry Lowenkron testified this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "To this day, the crackdown casts a shadow over the Ethiopian government."
While underscoring Ethiopia's cooperation in what President Bush calls the global war on terror, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act calls for the release of political prisoners.
It calls on the State Department to fund human rights, democracy, civil society and rule of law groups and those helping victims of torture.
Although Payne describes the measure as not punitive in nature, it would prohibit non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia if the government obstructs U.S. human rights and democracy training efforts.
It would also restrict security assistance until the Ethiopian government releases prisoners, holds those in the security forces accountable for human rights abuses related to the crackdown following 2005 demonstrations, respects freedom of speech, and allows human rights groups to operate without harassment.
Other provisions include prohibiting members of security forces from receiving U.S. training, a visa ban for officials accused of gross human rights violations, and support for identifying and extraditing former Mengistu regime members living in the U.S.
Republican Congressman Christopher Smith hopes the legislation will get a vote in the House this year, and asserts that the Bush administration has not pushed Ethiopia's government hard enough on human rights issues. "The war on terrorism is very important, we all know that. But no regime that terrorizes its own citizens can be a reliable ally in the war on terror. Terrorism isn't just a military issue, it is also a human rights issue," he said.
But others have reservations with the wording of the bill.
Republican Michael McCaul says while the Ethiopian government is far from perfect it has shown a willingness to move in the right direction. "I am concerned that the passage of this bill as it is currently written will do more harm than good to the Ethiopian democratic movement, and will hurt our strategic partnership with Ethiopia in combating terrorism. I am also concerned it will have a negative effect on the current negotiations between the government and the opposition," he said.
"It really does appear that we are taking sides. There is no recognition of the fact that there have been significant advances since the ruling party came to power in 1991," said Republican Congressman John Boozman shares the concerns.
Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee believes the legislation will be helpful. "I am concerned about the military assistance, but I am listening to how it is to be instructive, because right now although we are about to release a number of prisoners, we still have a series of individuals who are still incarcerated. The question becomes what will happen to them?," she said.
To become law, the Ethiopia bill would have to be approved by the House and Senate, but would still face potential opposition from the White House.
A spokesman for the House Africa subcommittee told VOA it is hoped the measure will be considered by the Foreign Affairs Committee before the end of July.
As currently written, the measure gives the president authority to ignore the ban on security assistance if doing so is in the interests of U.S. national security, including joint counter-terrorism efforts, and Ethiopian contributions to U.N. peacekeeping.