Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Wednesday Ethiopia could pardon politicians and journalists arrested under a 2009 anti-terrorism law, but dismissed opposition criticism he was using the law to clamp down on dissent.
Rights groups say the government has used the law to crack down on its opponents, saying 150 opposition politicians and supporters have been detained under its provisions in the past three years.
Zenawi rejected the complaints, telling parliament: "All trials are transparent, all suspects are allowed access to lawyers and some have even been freed when no evidence was found to justify their arrests."
"But we would also consider granting clemency if culprits admit guilt and to making mistakes," he said in response to questions from lawmakers.
Ethiopia passed the bill after bombings in a number of towns and subsequently branded as terrorist organisations the secessionist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the exiled Ginbot 7 movement, al Qaeda and Somalia's al Shabaab militants.
Meles dismissed rights groups' complaints that the scope of the anti-terrorism law was too broad, saying it was copied "word-for-word" from those of Western countries.
"We haven't changed a word, a comma even, as those laws emanate from countries with vast democratic experience," he said.
JOURNALISTS CANNOT ESCAPE THE LAW
Ten journalists are among those charged under the anti-terrorism law, including two Swedes sentenced in December to 11 years in prison for aiding the outlawed ONLF and entering the country illegally.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson say they were in Ethiopia's Ogaden province to investigate the activities of an oil company that bought licences in Ethiopia in 2009 from Sweden's Lundin Petroleum.
Meles compared the case to that of Britain's phone-hacking scandal, which led to the arrest of several journalists and prompted Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to close its best-selling Sunday tabloid, News of the World.
"These two journalists violated Ethiopia's laws. No journalist can escape charges if rules are broken," Meles said.
"Phone-tapping is criminal enough to have journalists stand trial, let alone aiding a terrorist group and entering a country illegally," he said.
Rights groups have called for their release and Sweden, the European Union and United States have expressed concern. The two Swedes are seeking clemency rather than lodging an appeal, in the hope of securing a quicker release.
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