(Adds details on bill)
By C. Bryson Hull
NAIROBI, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Ethiopia on Wednesday strongly criticised a U.S. law moving through Congress that links future aid to democratic reforms, calling it a threat to regional stability and its close military ties with Washington.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act, which demands Washington’s top counter-terrorism partner in the Horn of Africa make a host of democratic changes or face security aid cuts.
The bill, which still needs U.S. Senate approval and a presidential signature, would also deny U.S. entry visas to any Ethiopian government official involved in what it calls human rights violations, unless the president authorised a waiver.
The act would bar the aid unless Ethiopia accepted outside rights monitoring, fostered an independent judiciary and media, and allowed U.S.-funded aid to those ends. In addition, the bill would direct $20 million to political parties and civil-society groups in Ethiopia to promote democracy.
"The legislation also would undermine regional stability in the Horn of Africa by jeopardising vital security cooperation between the United States and Ethiopia," Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, Samuel Assefa, said in a statement.
He said if "the irresponsible legislation" becomes law, "it would create fresh obstacles to Ethiopia’s bold efforts toward comprehensive democratic reforms".
Ethiopia, with the strongest army in the Horn, is in the thick of several intertwined conflicts, including its backing of the Somali government against insurgents, a border standoff with Eritrea and its fight against insurgents at home.
U.S. military and counter-terrorism leaders consider Ethiopia a critical bulwark against al Qaeda operatives known to be operating in east Africa since the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Bush administration has requested $1.5 million in military aid to Ethiopia for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, of which $650,000 would be directed toward military education and training, according to the U.S. State Department.
The congressional bill would exempt counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations from any funding restrictions. Funds for health care and food would also be untouched. The Bush administration has requested $654 million for health and economic assistance for this fiscal year.
The congressional vote came two years after violent protests over Ethiopia’s 2005 election results that left nearly 200 people dead when opposition protesters claiming vote-rigging clashed with security forces.
That, and a subsequent trial of opposition members including those who won seats in parliament, led to criticism from rights groups and the withholding of certain aid by European donors.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his government held the fairest multi-party polls in Ethiopian history. Foreign teams noted some problems but said the polls were broadly fair.
Addis Ababa argues it has made reforms, and could not tolerate organised protests it said amounted to treason.
In July Ethiopia pardoned nearly all of those convicted four days after their sentencing. Samuel said the presence of two pardoned opposition leaders at U.S. congressional hearings was proof of Ethiopia’s democratic commitment.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group, which demands greater self-rule in its eastern Ethiopian region and accuses the government of atrocities, applauded the bill.
"The U.S. House of Representatives has shown that executing the global war on terrorism is not incompatible with the forceful promotion of human rights and democracy," it said.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington)