Meles Zenawi, iron-fisted prime minister of Ethiopia for 21 years and a key ally in the U.S. war on terror, died Monday of an undisclosed illness. He was 57.
Zenawi was accused of suppressing journalists and political opponents and of bearing responsibility for tens of thousands of deaths in a war with neighboring Eritrea in the late 1990s. He became president in 1991 after helping oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist military junta, and prime minister controlling the federal government and armed forces in 1995.
During Meles’s election win in 2005, when it appeared the opposition was likely to make gains, Meles tightened security across the country, and on the night of the election he declared a state of emergency, outlawing any public gathering as his ruling party claimed a majority win. Opposition members accused Meles of rigging the election, and demonstrations broke out. Security forces moved in, killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands. Almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that won an unprecedented number of seats in parliament was jailed for life for treason.
In 2009, an anti-terror law was enacted, under which more than 100 opposition figures have since been arrested. The government insists it is tackling rebel groups that have links with al-Qaida and Eritrea.
More than 10 journalists have also been charged under the law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The group says Ethiopia is close to replacing Eritrea as the African country with the highest number of journalists behind bars. Two Swedish journalists were jailed for 11 years on charges of entering the country illegally and aiding a rebel group.