One dramatic act sets Ethiopia apart from the array of countries with poor human rights records that have become United States counterterrorism allies since the September 11, 2001, attacks: With U.S. backing, it invaded a neighboring country and overthrew a Taliban-like Islamist movement.

The country that Ethiopia invaded is its neighbor to the east in the Horn of Africa, the disintegrated state of Somalia, where the Islamist movement, called the Union of Islamic Courts, had taken over much of the country and was suspected of harboring al Qaeda members. Ethiopia remains militarily embroiled there today.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia received a huge increase in military assistance from the United States in the three years after 9/11 — from $928,000 in the period 1999-2001 to $16.7 million between 2002 and 2004. In fact, in 2005 — a year of contested Ethiopian parliamentary elections when government forces detained, beat and killed opposition members, journalists and intellectuals — Ethiopia received $7 million in Foreign Military Financing funding, an amount nearly equal to the FMF total from the previous two years combined.In its latest human rights report for 2006, the U.S. State Department painted a grim picture of the Ethiopian government’s human rights record, one that has changed little over the years. “Although the constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment,” the report says, “there were numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees. Opposition political parties reported frequent and systematic abuse of their supporters by police and regional militias.”

While both governments deny a quid pro quo, the increased military funding came after the largely destitute African nation became an early member of the “coalition of the willing” and a close ally of the United States in the global war on terror. Influential Washington lobbyists, including a former majority leader of the House of Representatives, worked on behalf of the Ethiopian government to secure the funding.

In the three years after 9/11, Ethiopia received increased funding from the FMF program (to buy U.S.-made weapons and services); the International Military Education and Training program; and the Pentagon’s new post-9/11 Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, which trains foreign forces in counterterrorism techniques.

In addition to the Somalia invasion, the role Ethiopia has played in the war on terror includes tightening border security, outlawing and restricting financial practices used by suspected terrorists and becoming a key intelligence partner of the U.S. in the Horn of Africa. It was in December 2006 that, with U.S. support and backing, it sent troops into Somalia and overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts; the United States suspects the UIC of harboring members of al Qaeda, including suspects associated with the 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In January 2007, in the midst of Ethiopia’s offensive against the Islamists in Somalia, the U.S. government allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea, The New York Times reported in April. The deal, a possible violation of United Nations restrictions imposed on North Korea in October 2006 because of the country’s unwillingness to cooperate with international nuclear weapons inspectors, appears to be another example of the difficult, and sometimes contradictory, compromises the Bush administration has had to make in the war on terror. The U.S. had been one of the most important sponsors of the North Korean sanctions at the United Nations.

Lobbyists to the rescue

The State Department’s continued negative human rights assessment could have threatened continued U.S. military assistance to Ethiopia under long-standing human rights restrictions enacted by Congress. But thanks to a concerted lobbying effort on behalf of the Ethiopian government and objections from the State Department, supporters of the Ethiopian government managed to stop a bill in Congress that would have cut off security assistance on human rights grounds.

The Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., in June 2006, proposed to put limits on military aid to Ethiopia — with the exception of peacekeeping and antiterrorism programs — until the government released all political prisoners and provided fair and speedy trials to other prisoners held without charges.

The bill swiftly passed the House International Relations Committee with bipartisan support. That’s when both advocates and opponents of aid to Ethiopia became active.

The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States launched a letter and e-mail campaign to push the legislation in Congress. To counter that grass-roots effort, the Ethiopian government hired a well-established law and lobbying firm in Washington, DLA Piper, to quash the billl; DLA Piper says its work on Smith’s bill was only part of its $50,000 per month representation of the Ethiopian government.

The lobbying team included former House Republican majority leader Dick Armey and 12 other lobbyists. DLA Piper also produced and distributed a nine-page memo highlighting the Ethiopian government’s opposition to the bill.

In the memo, the lobbyists said that the bill compromised “the national security interests of both the United States and Ethiopia.” They also raised concerns about Somalia that Ethiopia and the United States shared. “The bill will prohibit critical security assistance to Ethiopia at a time when volatility in Somalia and instability in the Horn of Africa region more than ever demand that the U.S. make full use of the intelligence and defense cooperation of Ethiopia, its strongest and only democratic ally in the region.”

Mandatory lobbying disclosure records filed with the Department of Justice show that from April to August 2006, DLA Piper lobbyists talked on the phone and met numerous times with the staffs of the House International Relations Committee; Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Ethiopia and Ethiopian American Caucus; the congressional affairs section of the Department of State; and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and 2008 presidential candidate.

The bill never made it to the House floor. The Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department objected to the bill as being “too punitive” and getting in the way of U.S. foreign policy, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations surrounding the bill. “They did everything they could to sabotage it,” the source said.

A State Department spokesman, Steve Lauterbach, told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that the bill was “prescriptive” and “limiting” on how foreign aid to Ethiopia should be spent.

One of the few actions the U.S. took in light of the disclosed human right abuses was to stop the sale of additional Humvee military vehicles to Ethiopia after the Ethiopian government used some Humvees to crack down on civilian protesters in the riots that followed the May 2005 elections. The United States had sold 20 of the vehicles to Ethiopia for use in counterterrorism operations.

Military maneuvers

Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia after the Union of Islamic Courts forces began to threaten the fragile United Nations-backed transitional government based in the southern Somali city of Baidoa. The Islamists had been backed by Eritrea, Ethiopia’s longtime bitter rival with which it went to war in 1998 in a still-unresolved border dispute. In addition, internal Ethiopian insurgent groups were operating from the area controlled by the UIC, according to Terrence Lyons, a George Mason University scholar on the region.

But there was much more to the cooperation between the U.S. and Ethiopia.

Besides providing intelligence assistance and satellite imagery to Ethiopian forces, American AC-130 gunships were allowed to take off from an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to target al Qaeda suspects fleeing with the retreating UIC forces, The New York Times reported in February 2007, quoting sources to whom it had granted anonymity. Ethiopian government officials strongly denied giving access to the gunships. American special forces units were also allowed to deploy to Kenya and Ethiopia, and from there they ventured into Somalia to try to confirm the identity of those killed in the AC-130 attacks, the newspaper reported.

The United States and the international community are providing diplomatic and economic support to the transitional Somali government, which is facing a guerrilla insurgency in the capital of Mogadishu despite Ethiopian forces having routed the UIC. More than 320,000 people have fled Mogadishu. “The transitional government had problems to begin with because it was connected to Ethiopia, the regional rival,” said Lyons, “and now has further problems because it’s connected to the United States.”

According to Lyons, the U.S. bombings in Somalia made the transitional government weaker. “From the global-war-on-terror framework and not from a peace-and-security-in-the-Horn-of-Africa framework, the attack made sense. Actually, it would make sense if they had in fact correctly targeted the [right] people,” he said (American officials told The New York Times that none of the top al Qaeda operatives in the Horn of Africa had been killed or captured since the invasion of Somalia began in December). “From the point of view of creating a stable government and building up a constituency … having a very powerful, very dramatic U.S. gunship come and attack did real damage to the transitional federal government.”

Cooperation between Ethiopia and the United States was not limited to the Somalia invasion. After weeks of outcry by local human rights groups, Ethiopian officials acknowledged that they had secretly detained 41 terrorism suspects from 17 countries who had been fighting with the Somali Islamists. It’s unclear whether Ethiopia acted unilaterally or in conjunction with the U.S. government in detaining the suspects, but American officials told the Times that its agents had interrogated the suspects in Ethiopian prisons. U.S. officials denied that the prisoners taken into Ethiopian custody were part of any “extraordinary rendition” program, under which terrorist suspects are detained outside of the rule of law and often transferred to third countries, many times those known to employ torture.

Back in Washington, human rights groups and the Ethiopian diaspora are continuing to press Congress on restricting military assistance to the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi. The United States has been “giving too much to Ethiopia and asking too little from it,” Lynn Fredriksson, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for Africa, said in an interview with ICIJ. In November 2006, she testified at a congressional hearing, arguing that “Ethiopia is an important U.S. ally, but that does not give us the liberty to ignore egregious rights violations.”

Advocates of Smith’s bill say that the legislation will have a better chance of succeeding under the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Smith’s bill was re-introduced on May 9 while a very similar version was introduced by Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., on April 23.

Meanwhile, $2 million of new FMF funding for Ethiopia was requested in 2007 by the Bush administration. The United States also made the country eligible to receive used weapons and equipment for free or at reduced prices under the Excess Defense Articles program.

Meles, the prime minister, is “the victorious-against-terrorists United States friend,” said Lyons. “He is not worried if the [U.S.] ambassador says we are concerned about prison conditions. He would just laugh at us.”

Assistant Database Editor Ben Welsh contributed this report.