ETHIOPIA: SEQUESTERED IN a dank prison cell, Ethiopia’s biggest reggae star awaits trial in a deadly hit-and-run case that has galvanised the nation, writes Edmund Sanders .

Federal prosecutors say Tewodros Kassahun, dubbed the Bob Marley of Ethiopia, fled after striking a homeless boy with his BMW. They call it a case of celebrity bad behaviour.

Fans say the singer, also known as Teddy Afro, is being framed because of his music’s perceived anti-government message. In one song, he accuses Ethiopia’s leaders of promising change but bringing only “a new king”. Fans also ask why Kassahun was not charged until April. The boy was killed in 2006.

Kassahun’s incarceration has spurred protests – a rarity in this tightly controlled Horn of Africa country – and is fast becoming a national symbol of what some call Ethiopia’s democratic backsliding.

After a 2005 post-election crackdown, Ethiopia’s government tried to ease tensions last autumn by pardoning thousands of jailed opposition supporters and allowing some independent newspapers to reopen. “We’d hoped that was the beginning of an opening in the democratic space,” said Hailu Araaya, deputy chairman of the recently-formed Unity for Democracy and Justice party. He spent 20 months in jail before his release in July 2007. “But the political space is contracting again. It’s clear the ruling party is determined to stay in power by any means.”

Government critics point to a string of new laws targeting political parties, journalists and humanitarian agencies. Under one new law, political parties no longer may accept foreign donations and must disclose the names of domestic contributors.

Opposition groups say that restriction has dried up their financial support, because potential contributors fear government retaliation.

Prime minister Meles Zenawi said the reforms were an attempt to bring Ethiopia’s laws up to international standards, noting that US rules also ban foreign campaign contributions.

Critics said restrictions on foreign funding and political activism were particularly galling, considering that nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s government budget comes from international donors.

Opposition leaders and some Western diplomats say the new laws appear to be an attempt to consolidate power before the 2010 presidential election.

Ethiopia is eager to avoid a repeat of the 2005 election, when opposition parties won in many cities, including Addis Ababa, the capital. Post-election wrangling led to the government crackdown in which nearly 200 people were killed and more than 30,000 opposition candidates and supporters were imprisoned.

In local elections this spring, the ruling coalition won handily in most locations. Opposition parties boycotted the polls after complaining that the government prevented them from fielding candidates in many districts.

Negasso Gidada, a former president who quit the ruling coalition in 2001, blamed its members’ roots as former Marxist rebels for the government’s heavy-handed approach. “They don’t claim they want a socialist state, but the ideology is still there,” he said. “They don’t tolerate other ideologies.”

Mr Zenawi dismissed as “hogwash” claims that his government is ideologically driven.

On the streets of Addis Ababa, some Ethiopians say they’ve noticed political improvements. But fear of government intimidation remains strong and many have interpreted the arrest of Kassahun as a warning against speaking out. Two Ethiopian journalists have been arrested for writing sympathetically about the singer’s case.

“Before, when we were operating in a fully-fledged dictatorship, you knew what you could and couldn’t do,” said one Ethiopian, who was afraid to be identified. “Now there is more openness, but you don’t know where the line is – until you’ve crossed it.”

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