“Six men attacked Aregawi Gebrehannes at his bar in Shire (north Ethiopia) at around 03:00 on Tuesday,” Gebru Asrat of the coalition Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (Medrek, the main opposition movement), told AFP.
The candidate, who had claimed repeated harassment this year, was vying for a place in parliament for a constituency in Tigray, a stronghold of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
“They butchered him to death, his body was found cut into pieces,” added Gebru, who was an ally of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi before falling out with him in 2001.
He claimed the assailants were “mercenaries” linked to the ruling party.
The group said another candidate was “badly beaten” for his political activities in the region on the same day.
Government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal confirmed the incidents, but denied any ruling party involvement.
“Both incidents had nothing to do with the government. These were isolated mishaps and we very much regret that they had to happen,” he told AFP.
Shimeles said one suspect is in custody for the murder of Aregawi, but dismissed the second incident as a “quarrel”.
The candidate “tried to persuade a youth to read a political leaflet but the latter refused. A quarrel later ensued and a fight broke out.”
Another opposition member accused the government of “stepping up” its repression ahead of the polls, but insisted the party was not considering withdrawing despite the setbacks.
“The Ethiopian people deserve to have an alternative. For the time being this remains our stance,” Siye Abraha said.
Ethiopia’s polls will take place on May 23, the first since 2005 when disputed results sparked violence that claimed some 200 lives.
Five years on, opposition leaders are accusing the government of foul play in order to stay on in power.
Birtukan Mideksa, 36, head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, is serving a life sentence on charges she violated terms of the pardon that freed her from jail after spending two years on treason charges.
The US, a staunch ally of Ethiopia and its top donor, has expressed concern over her re-arrest.
Five other opposition leaders were sentenced to death and 33 other people to life imprisonment in December for plotting to overthrow the government.
Authorities claimed a group called “Ginbot 7” – led by Birtukan’s former ally Berhanu Nega – had plotted to kill government officials and sabotage infrastructure.
Rights groups have accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime of instilling a climate of fear ahead of the polls. – AFP