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Ethiopia 2012: Human Rights and Government Wrongs

Another Groundhog Year

In December 2008, I wrote a weekly commentary lamenting the fact that 2008 was “Groundhog Year” in Ethiopia:

It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation… They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!

It is December 2012. Are Ethiopians better off today than they were in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011? 

Does bread (teff) cost more today than it did in 2008…, a year ago? Cooking oil, produce, basic staples, beef, poultry, housing, water, electricity, household fuel, gasoline…?

Are there more poor people in Ethiopia today than there were in 2008? More hunger, homelessness, unemployment, less health care, fewer educational opportunities for young people?

Is there more corruption and secrecy and less transparency and accountability in December 2012 than in December 2008?

Are elections more free and fair in 2012 than in 2008?

Are there more political prisoners today than in 2008?

Is there less press freedom and are more journalists in prison today than in 2008?

Is Ethiopia more dependent on international handouts for its daily bread today than it was in 2008?

Is there more environmental pollution, habitat destruction, forced human displacement and land grabbing in Ethiopia today than 2008?

Is Ethiopia today still at the very bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index?

The Evidence on Government Wrongs in Ethiopia in 2012

Human rights violations in Ethiopia continue to draw sharp and sustained condemnation from all of the major international human rights organizations and other legal bodies. In 2012, the ruling regime in that country has become intensely repressive and arrogantly intolerant of all dissent and opposition. The regime continues to trash its own Constitution, sneer at its international legal obligations and thumb its nose at its critics. Though some incorrigible optimists hoped a post-Meles regime would open up the political space, reach out to opposition elements and at least engage in human rights window dressing, the nauseating litany of those who are falling head over heels to fit into Meles’ shoes has been “there will be no change. We will (blindly) follow Meles’ vision…” In other words, 2013, 2014, 2015… will be no better than 2012 or 2008.

The evidence of sustained and massive official human rights violations in Ethiopia is overwhelming and irrefutable. Let the evidence speak for itself.

The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia (May 2012) concluded:

The most significant human rights problems [in Ethiopia] included the government’s arrest of more than 100 opposition political figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers… The government restricted freedom of the press, and fear of harassment and arrest led journalists to practice self-censorship. The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) continued to impose severe restrictions on civil society and nongovernmental organization (NGO) activities… Other human rights problems included torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; allegations of abuses in connection with the continued low-level conflict in parts of the Somali region; restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and movement; police, administrative, and judicial corruption…

Human Rights Watch concluded: 

Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Hundreds of Ethiopians in 2011 were arbitrarily arrested and detained and remain at risk of torture and ill-treatment. Attacks on political opposition and dissent persisted throughout 2011, with mass arrests of ethnic Oromo, including members of the Oromo political opposition in March, and a wider crackdown with arrests of journalists and opposition politicians from June to September 2011. The restrictive Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (adopted in 2009) has been used to justify arrests of both journalists and members of the political opposition…

Freedom House concluded:

Ethiopia is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, with a score of 6 for both political rights and civil liberties.  Political life in Ethiopia is dominated by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi from 1995 until his death in August 2012. May 2011 federal and regional elections were tightly controlled by the EPRDF; voters were threatened if they did not support the ruling party, and opposition meetings were broken up while leaders were threatened or detained.  The EPRDF routinely utilizes the country’s anti-terrorism laws to target opposition leaders and the media.  Parliament has declared much of the opposition to be terrorist groups and has targeted journalists who cover any opposition activity.  Media is dominated by state-owned broadcasters and government-oriented newspapers.  A 2009 law greatly restricts NGO activity in the country by prohibiting work in the area of human and political rights and limiting the amount of international funding any organization may receive.  This law has neutered the NGO sector in the country.  The judiciary is independent in name only, with judgments that rarely deviate from government policy.

Amnesty International urged that the “government of Ethiopia should see the succession of Meles as an opportunity to break with the past and end the practice of arresting anyone and everyone who criticizes the government.”

A group of U.N. Special Rapporteurs (an independent group of investigating experts authorized by the United Nations Human Rights Council) in 2012 issued public statements condemning the ruling regime for its indiscriminate use of the so-called anti-terrorism law to suppress a broad range of freedoms and for flagrantly perpetuating and sanctioning human rights violations.

Maina Kiai, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, concluded, “The resort to anti-terrorism legislation is one of the many obstacles faced by associations today in Ethiopia. The Government must ensure protection across all areas involving the work of associations, especially in relation to human rights issues.”

Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights warned that “the anti-terrorism provisions should not be abused and need to be clearly defined in Ethiopian criminal law to ensure that they do not go counter to internationally guaranteed human rights.”

Frank La Rue, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression stated that “Journalists play a crucial role in promoting accountability of public officials by investigating and informing the public about human rights violations. They should not face criminal proceedings for carrying out their legitimate work, let alone be severely punished.”

Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders criticized that “journalists, bloggers and others advocating for increased respect for human rights should not be subject to pressure for the mere fact that their views are not in alignment with those of the Government [of Ethiopia].”

Gabriela Knaul, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers argued that  “Defendants in a criminal process should be considered as innocent until proven guilty as enshrined in the Constitution of Ethiopia… And it is crucial that defendants have access to a lawyer during the pre-trial stage to safeguard their right to prepare their legal defence.”

On December 18, 2012, 16 members of the European Parliament issued a public letter to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn “expressing grave concern over the continued detention of journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega”. In the letter, the members reminded Desalegn to comply with his “government’s obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression as established under customary international law and codified in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ethiopia is a party.”

The Regime Must Cease and Desist All Unlawful Interference in the Exercise of Religious Freedom

Article 11 of the Ethiopian Constitution  mandates “separation of state and religion” to ensure that the “Ethiopian State is a secular state” and that “no state religion” is established. Article 27 prohibits “coercion by force or any other means, which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”

Despite clear legal obligations to respect the religious liberties of citizens, the ruling regime in Ethiopia has played fast and loose with the rights of Muslim citizens to select their own religious and spiritual leaders. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body constituted by the Congress and the President of the United States to monitor religious freedom worldwide:

Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam.   The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC).  Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution.  The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.

The regime must conform its conduct to the requirements of its Constitution and international legal obligations and cease and desist interference in the free exercise of religion of Muslim citizens. All citizens unlawfully arrested and detained in connection with the peaceful protest of unlawful deprivation of religious liberty must be released forthwith.

All Political Prisoners Must be Released

The number of political prisoners has yet to be fully documented in Ethiopia today. While human rights organizations have focused on multiple dozens of high profile political prisoners, there are in fact tens of thousands of ordinary Ethiopians who are held in detention because of their beliefs, open opposition or refusal to support the ruling regime. All political prisoners must be released immediately.

In a broader sense, there are two types of political prisoners in Ethiopia today. There are prisoners of conscience  and prisoners-of-their-own-consciences. The prisoners of conscience are imprisoned because they are dissidents, opposition party leaders and journalists. They have done no legal or moral wrong. In fact, they have done what is morally and legally right. They have told the truth. They have spoken truth to power. They have stood up to injustice. They have defended freedom, democracy and human rights by paying the ultimate price with their lives and liberties. They can be set free by the stroke of the pen.

The prisoners-of-their-own-consciences became prisoners by committing crimes against humanity in the first degree with the lesser included offenses of the crimes of ignorance, arrogance and  petulance. These prisoners are numbed by the opiate of power. They live in fear and anxiety of being held accountable any given day. They dread the day the wrath of the people will be visited upon them. They know with certainty that they will one day be judged by the very scales they have used to judge others.

The prisoners-in-their-own-conscience can free the prisoners of conscience and thereby free themselves. That is their only salvation. In the alternative, let them heed Gandhi’s dire warning: “There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall—think of it always.”

Stop Repressing the Press

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” That rings true for the ruling regime in Ethiopia. Last week three imprisoned and one exiled Ethiopian journalists received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012 “in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments”. The recipients included Eskinder Nega, an independent journalist and blogger and recipient of the 2012 PEN International freedom to Write Award;  Reeyot Alemu, one of the few Ethiopian female journalists associated with the officially shuttered weekly newspaper Feteh and recipient of the 2012 International Women’s Media Courage in Journalism Award; Woubshet Taye, editor of the officially shuttered weekly newspaper Awramba Times and Mesfin Negash of Addis Neger Online, another weekly officially shuttered before going online. The four were among a diverse group of 41 writers and journalists from 19 countries to receive the Hellman/Hammett Award.According to Human Rights Watch:

The four jailed and exiled journalists exemplify the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today. Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.  The journalistic work and liberty of the four Ethiopian award-winners has been suppressed by the Ethiopian government in its efforts to restrict free speech and peaceful dissent, clamp down on independent media, and limit access to and use of the internet. They represent a much larger group of journalists in Ethiopia forced to self-censor, face prosecution, or flee the country.

All dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press. Total control of the media remains the wicked obsession of all modern day dictators who believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of their citizens.  But that is only wishful thinking. As Napoleon realized, “a journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” Like Napoleon, the greatest fear of the dictators in Ethiopia is the “tutoring” aspect of the press — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge. They understand the power of the independent press to effectively countercheck their tyrannical rule and hold him accountable before the people. Like Napoleon, they have spared no effort to harass, jail, censor and muzzle journalists for criticizing and exposing their criminality, use of a vast network of spies to terrorize Ethiopian society, shining the light of truth on their military and policy failures, condemning their indiscriminate massacres of unarmed citizen protesters in the streets and for killing, jailing and persecuting their  political opponents.

All imprisoned journalists must be released immediately.

“Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” JFK

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: 

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:


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