Exiled Ethiopians to confront official

Confrontation to take place in Minnesota
May 31, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Being in the same Minneapolis hotel building is about as close as Peter Omot wants to get to Omot Obang Olom, the Ethiopian official he holds responsible for the massacre of more than 400 of his ethnic kin. Peter Omot, a 35-year-old member of the Anuak ethnic minority, says he won't enter the room where Omot, the governor of the country's western Gambella region, will speak to the local community-in-exile on Saturday.

Gov. Omot was in charge of security when, according to human rights groups, Ethiopian troops attacked the local Anuak population in December 2003.

"He prepared the ground," Peter Omot, who lives in Savage, Minn., said Friday.

The regional governor's appearance at the community meeting has set off debate in the Anuak diaspora over whether it's appropriate even to be in the same room as Omot, who is Anuak himself.

The Anuak Justice Council in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has been pushing U.S. and Canadian authorities to arrest and try Omot for war crimes. He is expected to continue on to Canada next week. But advocates haven't been able to confirm whether he's traveling on a diplomatic visa that would grant him wide-ranging immunity.

"He should not be meeting the Anuak in a town hall meeting. He should be meeting the Anuak in chambers - you know, in a court of law," said Obang Metho, an advocate with the Anuak Justice Council in Saskatoon who is boycotting the meeting.

He added: "He has blood on his hands."

State Department spokesman Bill Strassberger confirmed that Omot received a visa, but said that because visa records are confidential, he could not discuss the visa application. He also declined to discuss whether Omot had a role in the 2003 killings.

A message left Saturday for officials at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C., was not immediately returned.

Human rights groups have detailed a campaign of killings, rape, torture and displacement against the Anuak by government soldiers and members of other ethnic groups. Wholesale attacks started on Dec. 13, 2003, in Gambella town in southwestern Ethiopia. Thousands fled, some to southern Sudan.

An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Anuak live in Minnesota, in what is thought to be the largest concentration outside Africa, said Akway Cham, who heads the Minneapolis-based Anywaa Community Association in North America.

Obang, the advocate in Canada, said he expects Omot to try to get exiled Anuak to move back and help develop their region, and will say that the region has become safe and democratic.

Akway is at the center of the furor over Omot's visit because he's the facilitator of Saturday's forum. He planned to collect Omot and other Ethiopian officials at the airport Friday.

He acknowledged the stir the visit is creating but said he hopes people will come away with answers to their questions. He said the meeting will focus on the 2003 killings after a similar meeting in April with other government officials left many in the community dissatisfied.

"This guy is the governor, and he was there when the things happened, and people are expecting that he should be able to give some clear answers," he said.


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