ADDIS ABABA: Hundreds of Muslim protesters demonstrated in Ethiopia on Friday, demanding the release of 17 of their leaders jailed under terrorism charges last year.
“What the government is doing doesn’t solve the problem, rather it will worsen the situation,” said protestor Mohammed Seman, speaking at the demonstration following busy Friday prayers at a popular Addis Ababa mosque.
The leaders were arrested last August, following months of protests by Muslims accusing the government of interfering in religious affairs. They are currently on trial for intending to “carry out acts of terrorism”.
Protesters accuse the government of forcibly imposing the foreign Al-Ahbash branch of Islam, and appointing leaders, or majlis, of the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs who are traditionally elected by members of the Muslim community.
“We want our freedom, we want neutral majlis,” said protester Nouredine Ali.
The demonstrators carried banners reading “let our voices be heard”, and “we will fight for our religion and rights” at the rally, before police arrested several protestors, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Seman said the government should release the leaders and urged talks with the Muslim community.
“It is better to solve the problem with peaceful means,” he said.
The government did not return calls for comment on Friday.
Human Rights Watch has urged the government to free the jailed leaders, accusing it of a “brutal crackdown” on protests.
Ethiopia has come under fire for its controversial anti-terrorism legislation, which rights groups have said is used to silence critics.
Over 30 percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million people are Muslim, while around 60 percent practice Orthodox Christianity, according to official figures.