For the past several months, I have been commenting on the findings of the World Bank’s “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”, a 448-page report covering eight sectors (health, education, rural water supply, justice, construction, land, telecommunications and mining). In this my sixth commentary, I focus on “corruption in the justice sector”. The other five commentaries are available at my blog site.
Talking about corruption in the Ethiopian “justice sector” is like talking about truth in Orwell’s 1984 Ministry of Truth (“Minitrue”). The purpose of Minitrue is to create and maintain the illusion that the Party is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible. The purpose of the Ministry of Justice in Ethiopia is to create the illusion that the ruling regime under the command and control of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) masquerading as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPDRF) is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible.
I have long caricatured the “justice sector” of the TPLF/EPDRF as a kangaroo justice system founded on a sham, corrupt and whimsical legal process. What passes off as a “justice system” in Ethiopia is little more than a marketplace where “justice” is bought and sold in a monopoly controlled by one man supported by a few nameless, faceless and clueless men who skulk in the shadows of power. It is a justice system in which universal principles of law and justice are disregarded, subverted, perverted and mocked. It is a system where the poor, the marginalized, the audacious journalists, dissidents, opposition and civic society leaders are legally lynched despite the criticism and bootless cries of the international community. It is a system in which regime leaders, their families, friends and cronies are above the law and spell justice “JUST US”.
My first critique of the TPLF/EPDRF “justice system” appeared in 2006 when I wrote a 32-page analysis titled, “Keystone Cops, Prosecutors and Judges in a Police State.” It was written in the first year of what has become my long day’s journey into the dark night of advocacy against human rights violations in Ethiopia and Africa. The piece was intended to be a critical analysis of the trial of the so-called Kality defendants consisting of some 130 or so major opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society activists, journalists and others in the aftermath of the 2005 election. I tried to demonstrate that the show trial of those defendants was little more than a third-rate theatrical production staged to dupe the international community. I also tried to show how a dysfunctional and bankrupt judicial system was used to destroy political opposition and dissent. I described the “judicial proceedings” of the Kality defendants as “an elaborate hoax, a make-believe tribunal complete with hand-picked judges, trumped up charges, witless prosecutors, no procedures and predetermined outcomes set up to produce only one thing: a monumental miscarriage of justice.”
A glossy “diagnosis” of corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector
The WB’s “diagnosis” of corruption in “Ethiopia’s justice sector” is based on “interviews of 60 individuals” including “federal judges and prosecutors”, police, private attorneys, etc. in the capital and at another location. No ordinary citizens were included in the interview panel or the smaller focus groups. The study is intended to “explore the incidence of corruption in Ethiopia’s justice sector (including not only the courts but also several other organizations).” The “justice sector” includes, among others, “courts, police, prosecutors, administrative agencies with quasi-judicial powers, and public and private attorneys, prisons, and those in the executive and legislative branches responsible for enacting the laws and regulations governing their operations”.
The report begins with unusual disclaimers and apologia. The author proclaims that “this report begins from an agnostic standpoint—attempting only to document reality in Ethiopia’s justice sector and to compare it… with the situation elsewhere in African and other countries…” It is not clear what she means by “an agnostic standpoint”, but her analysis is frontloaded with servilely apologetic language manifestly intended not to offend or appear to point an accusatory finger at the ruling regime in Ethiopia. The report appears to have been written with some trepidation; perhaps the author was afraid of a backlash (tongue-lash) from the regime. The author timorously tiptoes around well-established and notorious facts about corruption in the regime’s justice sector. In light of the many disclaimers, reservations and contingencies in the report, it is obvious that the author does not want to call a spade a spade, so she calls the spade a bucket. But corruption by any disclaimer is still corruption; and Ethiopia’s justice sectors reeks of corruption.
The author claims an examination of “corruption in the justice sector is important because it undermines the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the control of corruption in other sectors, the strengthening of the normative framework underlying private and public actions (the rule of law), and the creation of a predictable environment for public and private transactions.” According to the study, corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector “takes one of two forms: (a) political interference with the independent actions of courts or other sector agencies, or (b) payment or solicitation of bribes or other considerations to alter a decision or action.” The study claims the “most common form of corruption involves bribes solicited by or offered to police to ignore a criminal offense, not make an arrest, or not bring witnesses or suspects to court (which can cause a provisional adjournment of the case). Traffic police are the worst offenders.” Another “common form of corruption” involves “payment of court staff to misplace case files or evidence” (a practice that has nearly disappeared because of new judicial policies on archive management introduced under a Canadian International Development Agency program”.
The author provides a catalogue of corrupt practices which she claims are disputed by various respondents in her study but include “(a) sales of judgments or other judicial actions in civil disputes; (b) lawyers’ solicitation of “bribes” that never reached the bench; (c) prosecutors’ misuse of their own powers, in response to bribes or political directives, to advance or paralyze a case; and (d) the corrupt actions of various officials entrusted with enforcement of judgments, especially in civil cases.” She attributes the divergence in viewpoints to a “likely gap between perceptions and reality [which] are partly a function of the persistent lack of transparency in personnel policies.”
What is remarkable about the WB “justice sector” study is the fact that the author, by focusing on the “most common form of corruption” (i.e. petty police, particularly traffic police, corruption), fails to critically probe grand corruption involving party officials and regime leaders and their cronies who routinely subvert the justice system through political interference and pressure to protect their political and economic interests. She circumvents serious inquiry into grand corruption in the “justice sector” by providing catalogues of “potential forms of criminal and civil corruption” and “corruption risks”. She appears averse to investigating high-level corruption that occurs in the process of judicial appointment of handpicked party loyalists and hacks, laws written to aid certain elites in society, or in the debasement and corruption of the integrity and independence of the judiciary. She ignores the type of justice corruption that occurs in “state capture” where economic elites develop cozy relationships with political and judicial officials through whom they obtain favorable judicial decisions to advance their own advantage. For instance, on the issue of political interference in the judicial process, the author demonstrates her “agnosticism” by reporting that “the one who came closest eventually admitted that ‘there was some [political interference], but it was very rare.’” Other responses ranged from ‘a moderate amount’ (limited to the bad apples) to the extreme of holding that ‘every civil judgment is sold.’”
Curiously, the author points an accusatory finger at petty corruption as the “most common form of corruption” distracting attention from the systemic and structural corruption in the justice sector. The importance of petty corruption must not be understated because of the serious impact it has on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens interacting with police, prosecutorial and other petty judicial officials. There is ample anecdotal evidence of petty corruption in which ordinary Ethiopian citizens and businesspersons are “shaken down” by traffic cops or minor functionaries in the judicial or state bureaucracy seeking small bribes. However, though petty corruption may be easier to detect, the real focus should be on grand corruption which is systemic, structural and difficult to detect and nearly impossible to punish. Structural and systemic corruption in the legal institutions, rules, and norms and those who are practitioners in the system create, maintain and sustain a culture of corruption in the justice sector, which the author appears to overlook.
Justice corruption is primarily a systemic failure of judicial institutions, lack of political will and capacity to manage judicial resources, maintain integrity of institutions. The author makes abstract references to the usual catalogue of corruption variables but does not seek to gather data to illuminate the scope, breadth and gravity of the problem of political interference and lack of accountability in the justice system. Grand corruption in the justice sector stems from the fact that political officials have wide authority over judicial officials (from appointment to management of judicial functions); and political officials have little accountability and incentive to maintain the integrity of the justice sector. There are few functional formal systems of control in the relationship between the judicial and political processes in Ethiopia. If there ever were control systems, they have been broken for a long time making it nearly impossible to administer fairly the laws while maintaining accountability in the form of a robust reporting system and transparency in the form of robust management practices. Such institutional decay has promoted the growth of a culture of corruption in the justice sector and continues to undermine not only the broad adjudicatory role of justice sector institutions but also public confidence in the integrity of the justice system itself.
Justice sector in a police state?
Justice in a dictatorship is to justice as military music is to music. No reasonable person would consider martial law (military rule) to produce justice. By definition dictatorship — a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a dictator or a small clique — is the quintessential definition of injustice. Any form of government that operates in flagrant disregard of the rule of law is inherently corrupt.
I have on previous occasions tried to expose such corruption in Ethiopia’s “justice sector” with anecdotal evidence of arbitrary administration of justice or denial of fair trial to those accused of “terrorism”, “treason” and even “corruption”, opposition leaders, human rights advocates, journalists, etc. In the kinder and gentler police state that Ethiopia has become, any petty “law enforcement” official of the regime has the power to arrest and jail an innocent citizen. As I argued in my February 2012 commentary, “The Prototype African Police State”, a local police chief in Addis Ababa felt so arrogantly secure in his arbitrary powers that he threatened to arrest a Voice of America reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. simply because that reporter asked him for his full name during a telephone interview. “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”, barked the impudent police chief Zemedkun. If a flaky policeman can exercise such absolute power, is it unreasonable to imagine those at the apex of power have the power to do anything they want with impunity. The regime in Ethiopia is the petri dish of corruption and living proof that power corrupts and an absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In my view, denial of due process (fair trial) is the highest form of corruption imaginable in the “justice sector” because it results in the arbitrary deprivation of a person’s life, liberty and property. Could anyone (other than those politically connected) really expect to get a fair trial in the regime’s kangaroo courts or fair treatment in the pre-trial process?
The systemic corruption in the “justice sector” is that the law of the land is ignored, disregarded and perverted at the whim and fancy of those in power. For instance, the presumption of innocence (Eth. Const. Art. 20(3)) is openly flouted. The late leader of the regime used to routinely and publicly talk about the guilt of opposition leaders, journalists and others standing trial without so much of an awareness of the suspects’ right to a presumption of innocence or appreciation of the risk of prejudicial pretrial publicity emanating from such inflammatory statements which are prohibited under the Constitution and other international human rights regimes (e.g. Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7(b) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR)). In 2011, the late leader of the regime proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while they were being tried and he was visiting Norway. He emphatically declared the duo “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” Persson and Schibbye were “convicted” and sentenced to long prison terms.
Show trials by publicity and demonization are another hallmark of the regime’s justice system. Following the 2005 election, the late leader of the regime publicly declared that “The CUD (Kinijit) opposition leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged, appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, the late leader railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, without so much as a hearing let alone a trial. He sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In making this statement, the late leader proclaimed to the world that he is the law and the ultimate source of justice in Ethiopia. His words trump the country’s Constitution!
In 2009, one of the top leaders of the regime labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long prison sentences.
Violations of the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes by the regime are rampant. Article 20 (2) provides, “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors.” Internationally celebrated Ethiopian journalists including Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and many others were denied access to legal counsel for months. Ethiopian Muslim activists who demanded an end to religious interference were jailed on “terrorism” charges were also denied access to counsel. They were mistreated and abused in pretrial detention. Scores of journalists, opposition members and activists arrested and prosecuted (persecuted) under the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation were also denied counsel and speedy trials and have languished in prison for long periods. Suspects are interrogated without the presence of counsel and coerced confessions extracted. Yet, Article 19 (5) provides, “Everyone shall have the right not to be forced to make any confessions or admissions of any evidence that may be brought against him during the trial.”
Article 19 (1) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Article 20 (2) provides, “Everyone charged with an offence shall be adequately informed in writing of the charges brought against him. Recently, the regime arrested members of its officialdom and their cronies on suspicion of corruption and kept the suspects in detention for months without informing them “promptly and in detail the charges against them”. Although the regime’s “top anti-corruption official” claimed that the corruption “suspects have been under surveillance for two years”, on their first court appearance, the prosecutors requested a 14-day continuance to gather more evidence! There is no judicial system in the world where suspects are arrested of committing crimes after being investigated for 2 years and then the prosecution asks for endless continuances to gather additional evidence.
Injustice impersonating justice
The 2012 U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded, “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to political influence.” The WB could have done a much better job of “diagnosing corruption” in Ethiopia’s “justice sector”. Candidly speaking, any deficiency in the report should not reflect exclusively on the World Bank or its consultants but on Ethiopians, particularly the Ethiopian intelligentsia, who do not seem find it worth their time or effort to read, challenge and supplement such reports. It seems few, very few, Ethiopian scholars and analysts take the time and effort to locate, study and critically analyze such important studies done by international institutions and other private research institutions.
I doubt the WB justice sector study will be of much value to policy makers, scholars or the casual reader. Having said that, the burden is on Ethiopian scholars in Ethiopia and abroad to work collaboratively and carefully document corruption in Ethiopia’s justice and other sectors. No study of Ethiopia’s justice sector is worthy of the title if it does not rigorously evaluate the factors that are at the core of corruption in the “justice sector” – absence of the rule of law, lack of independence of the judiciary, absence of due process, lack of impartiality and neutrality in the judicial process, the culture of corruption and impunity and the lack of accountability, transparency and confidence in the legal system. Such a study is the principal responsibility of Ethiopians, not the World Bank or its consultants. On the other hand, when the sword of justice is beaten into a sledgehammer of injustice, it is the supreme duty of ordinary citizens to expose it!
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:
House cleaning or window dressing?
Are they playing us like a cheap fiddle again? For a while, it was all about the Meles Dam and how to collect nickels and dimes to build it. That kind of played itself out. (Not to worry. That circus will be back in town. The public has the attention span of a gold fish. So they think.) It’s time to change the flavor of the month. Time for a new game, a new hype. How about “corruption”? It’s a chic topic. The World Bank is talking about it. Everybody is talking about it. Even the corrupt are talking about corruption. Imagine kleptocrats calling corruptocrats corrupt? Or the pot calling the kettle black?
I have been talking and writing about corruption in Ethiopia for years. After dozens of commentaries on some aspect of corruption in Ethiopia, I am still drumbeating anti-corruption. I have been “lasing” corruption in my commentaries in 2013. I was flabbergasted by the World Bank’s 448-page report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. I am still reeling from the shocking findings in that report. In my commentary last week, “Educorruption and Miseducation in Ethiopia”, I focused on corruption in the education sector. It is one thing to steal an election or pull off a gold heist at the national bank, but robbing millions of Ethiopian youth of their future by imprisoning them in the bowels of a corrupt educational system is harrowing, downright criminal. Aarrgghh!
“The Administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made the full might of its power known last Friday, after ordering the arrest of 10 high and medium ranking officials of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA), along with six businessmen, some of whom are well known… Hailemariam wants to prove that there are no holy-cows…” tooted the opening sentence of an online media outlet. My initial reaction was a bemused, “You don’t say!?” (To be perfectly frank, I exclaimed, “Holy cows? Holy _ _ _ t!!”)
The two dozen “corruption” suspects nabbed in the “investigation” include ERCA “director general” with the “rank of minister”, his deputies and the “chief prosecutor” along with other customs officials. A number of prominent businessmen and some of their family members were also snagged in the dragnet. “Ethiopia’s top anti-corruption official” Ali Sulaiman told the Voice of America Amharic program last week “the suspects had been under surveillance for over two years.”
The anti-corruption crusaders put on quite a show-and-tell on their television service. They put up dramatic footage of wads and stashes of greenbacks and Eurodollars in suitcases allegedly seized at a suspect’s residence. They displayed allegedly fraudulent land records from another suspect and gave interviews on how the suspects engaged in their corrupt practices. (The show-and-tell was reminiscent of the “terrorist” suspects they paraded in “Akeldama” and “Jihadawi Harakat” with caches of guns and explosives. For the “corruption” suspects, it was stashes of cash.)
The regime’s public relations machine kicked into overdrive. Comments by unnamed “Ethiopian activists praising efforts by the government to crackdown on corruption in the East African country” were reported. One anonymous activists declared, “Ethiopia is pushing forward on efforts to help end the rampant corruption within government and business in the country…. We need to clean up our government…” Other anonymous commentators were quoted proclaiming moral victory on corruption. “The arrests are the beginning of a new Ethiopia free from the politics and past craziness and greed that had been part of the country for far too long.”
Divergent viewpoints on the “investigation” and arrest of the suspects were bandied in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Some offered muted praise for “Hailemariam’s government” for launching a “war” on “corruption”. They said the bagging of the two dozen or so suspects represents a shot across the bow for all “corruptitioners” (a neologism to describe professional practitioners of corruption). Others were convinced the suspects were guilty “because everybody knows they are corrupt. They shakedown every businessman importing goods into the country…” They were glad to see these “bad guys” bagged. There were many who dismissed the whole investigation as a sham, a public relations charade. It is political theater staged for the World Bank, the IMF and other donors who are demanding anti-corruption action as a precondition for handouts.
Some even suggested it was a special show staged for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who is expected to visit Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit. The regime bosses can bob and weave against any Kerry punches on human rights and the jailing of dissidents, journalists and opposition leaders by touting their “anti-corruption” efforts. Others viewed the arrests as a fallout of the post-Meles power struggle that is raging among ruling party factions. For the suspects to be arrested, their protector “god fathers” must have been vanquished or purged out in the power play. Still others said the arrest of these particular suspects is the low hanging fruit of corruption in Ethiopia. Going after officials of the customs authority, an agency historically stained with corruption, provides the regime an aura of credibility and magnifies its purported anti-corruption efforts.
I see the whole things with a jaded eye. I am convinced the cunning regime power players are gaming corruption. They are showboating and grandstanding. They are trying to kill two birds with one stone. Nail their opponents and get public relations credit and international handouts at the same time. They are desperately trying to catch some positive publicity buzz in a media environment where they are being hammered and battered everyday by human rights organizations, NGOs, international media outlets and others. It is a public relations stunt and political theatre without much substance or seriousness of purpose. It is standard operating window dressing procedure for the regime. It is red meat for the local population to make themselves look good and drum up support. It is a calculated strategy to reinvent “Hailemariam’s government” with smoke and mirrors. After repeated public cathartic confessions that he is the handmaiden of Meles, Hailemariam now wants to show the world he is Mr. Clean, not Mr. Clone (of Meles). He is no longer part of the corrupt-to-the-core ancien regime of Meles. Mr. Clean is going to clean house and he has already bagged his first “Dirty 2 Dozen”. (Reminds one of Pinocchio telling Geppetto he dreams of becoming a real boy. Hailemariam, a real prime minister?!) What better agitprop to mobilize and capitalize on the infamy of a long reviled and hated agency. If they can’t hoodwink and drum up public support by talking ad nauseam about the Meles Dam, perhaps they can pull it off with a “corruption investigation” of the customs authority. It is sleazy investigating greasy and cheesy.
To say the corrupt Meles regime has no credibility with me is an understatement. The anti-corruption crusaders want us to believe only their side of their story and their silly show-and-tell. But every story has two sides or more. In telling a story, credibility is everything. The regime convicted Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and so many others on lies, fabrications and tall tales. They have no credibility.
I believe those corruptoids are interested in clinging to power, not good governance or stamping out corruption. The only reason they are able to remain in power is because corruption courses in their bloodstream. Corruption is the hemoglobin that delivers life-sustaining oxygen to their nerve center. Without corruption, the tyrannical regime will simply wither away.
I take a dim view of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts” not because I am its relentless critic or because I will not miss an opportunity to ding them or make them look bad. I make no apologies for my trenchant criticisms. But the truth of the matter is that if I believed in the slightest that they were serious and genuine about rooting (instead of tooting) out “corruption”, I would be the first to raise my pen and lavish them with praise. I would be rooting and tooting for them.
As I have often remarked, corruption is the malignant cancer that has metastasized throughout Ethiopia’s body politic. That’s why the World Bank’s voluminous report was aptly titled, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia.” It is a “clinical” diagnosis which has determined the cancer cells of corruption are not confined to one organ of state (customs authority) which can be surgically removed and treated with the penal equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation. The corruption cancer has spread throughout all organs of state.
The chemotherapy for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia is a free press that can aggressively and doggedly investigate and report corrupt officials and practices for public scrutiny. The radiation therapy for the cancer of corruption is an independent prosecutorial office that could catch not only the small winnows in the pond but most importantly the big whales and sharks swimming at the highest levels of government. An independent judiciary that is capable of adjudicating corruption cases with due process of law is also very much needed. The preventive care for the cancer of corruption involves vigilant civil society institutions which can work freely at the grassroots levels and provide anti-corruption awareness, education, training and monitoring. It also involves a genuinely competitive multiparty system that can hold the ruling party and its officials accountable.
None of these “medicines” exist in Ethiopia today. That is why I believe the cancer of “corruption” in due course will destroy the regime though it is the very source of its survival now. More on my views on the “anti-corruption efforts” of the regime later; but a word or two about due process, the rule of law and the “corruption” suspects.
Due process and the rights of the accused
As I was drafting this commentary, I was advised by some learned colleagues that any statement I make that seems remotely sympathetic to the suspects accused of “corruption” could send the wrong message and create the misimpression that I would stoop low to defend even the manifestly corrupt just to make political points against the regime. I was told not to bother because “everybody knows the suspects are corrupt…” One of my feisty friends in a moment of rhetorical impetuosity was compelled to ask, “Why should you care if these S.O.B’s get a fair trial? Everyone knows they are guilty. Let them hang!”
That is where I part ways with my learned friends. The last time I parted ways with them was when I defended Meles Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia University in September 2010. At the time, I was roundly criticized by friends and some of my regular readers. “How could you defend the ‘monster’ who had denied millions of Ethiopians the right to speak and even breath?” I insisted I was not defending a “monster” but the principle of free expression. My defense was simple, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” My position is no different now. If we don’t believe in a fair trial for those we despise as corrupt, then we do not believe in fair trial at all.
I believe in fairness and justice. I do not believe in revenge or retribution. I take no position on the factual guilt or innocence of those accused of “corruption”. If they did the crime, they have to do the time. However, I believe they have a constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial. In other words, I make no exceptions or compromises when it comes to taking a position in defending the principle and practice of due process of law and respect for fundamental human rights. Those accused of “corruption” now (and those who will certainly face accusations of crimes against humanity and other crimes in the future) are entitled to full due process of law, which includes not only the presumption of innocence and the right against self-incrimination but also the rights to counsel, adequate notice of charges, an impartial and neutral fact-finder, speedy trial and adjudication by the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
My deep concern over the arbitrary administration of justice or denial of fair trial to anyone accused of “corruption”, “terrorism”, “treason”, etc., is rooted in the manifest absence of the rule of law in Ethiopia and the harsh realities of Meles’ officialdom. Any petty “law enforcement” official of the regime has the power to arrest and jail an innocent citizen. As I argued in my February 2012 commentary, “The Prototype African Police State”, a local police chief in Addis Ababa felt so arrogantly secure in his arbitrary powers that he threatened to arrest a Voice of America reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. simply because that reporter asked him for his full name during a telephone interview. “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”, barked police chief Zemedkun. If a flaky policeman can exercise such absolute power, is it unreasonable to imagine those at the apex of power have the power to do anything they want with impunity. The regime in Ethiopia is living proof that power corrupts and an absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In my view, denial of due process (fair trial) is the highest form of “corruption” imaginable because its denial results in the arbitrary deprivation of a person’s life, liberty and property. I am unapologetic in my insistence that the suspects accused of “corruption” are entitled to full due process of law under the country’s Constitution and international human rights conventions. The question is: Could they get a fair trial in the regime’s kangaroo courts? Do these “corruption” suspects have the same chance of getting a fair trial today as those accused of “treason”, “terrorism”, “subversion” yesterday?
Article 20 (3) Ethiopian Constitution provides, “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent.” The same right is secured under the Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7(b) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). Disrespect for the presumption of innocence has been the hallmark of the Meles regime. To be accused of a crime by the Meles regime is to be convicted and sentenced to a long prison term. That is why I have often caricatured the Meles’ judicial system as kangaroo court justice. The courts are corrupted through political manipulation, intimidation and domination. The 2012 U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded, “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courtsremained weak, overburdened, andsubject to political influence.” One of the “corruption” suspects during his first court appearance complained of prejudicial pretrial publicity because “state television showed his house being searched.”
There is a long and predictable pattern and practice of disregard for the constitutional right to presumption of innocence and wholesale abuse and denial of a panoply of constitutional rights to those accused of political crimes in Ethiopia. Following the 2005 election, Meles publicly declared that “The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged, appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, Meles railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, without so much as a hearing let alone a trial. He sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In 2009, Meles’ right hand man labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long prison sentences.
Meles proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while they were being tried and he was visiting Norway in 2011. He emphatically declared the duo “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” Persson and Schibbye were “convicted” and sentenced to long prison terms.
Violations of the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes by the regime are not limited to disregard for the presumption of innocence. Internationally-celebrated Ethiopian journalists including Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and many others were denied access to legal counsel for months. Ethiopian Muslim activists who demanded an end to religious interference were jailed on “terrorism” charges and denied access to counsel. They were mistreated and abused in pretrial detention. Scores of journalists, opposition members and activists arrested and prosecuted (persecuted) under the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation were also denied counsel and speedy trials and languished in prison for long periods.
Article 20 (2) provides, “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors. In an interview given to the Voice of America Amharic program last week, a lawyer for one of the suspects complained that he and a bunch of other lawyers were denied access to their clients accused of “corruption” after waiting for five hours. They were told to return the following day because the “suspects were undergoing interrogation.” Yet, Article 19 (5) provides, “Everyone shall have the right not to be forced to make any confessions or admissions of any evidence that may be brought against him during the trial.”
Article 19 (1) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Article 20 (2) provides, “Everyone charged with an offence shall be adequately informed in writing of the charges brought against him. The “corruption” suspects have yet to be “informed promptly and in detail the charges against them”. “Ethiopia’s top anti-corruption official” Ali Sulaiman told Voice of America Amharic last week that the “suspects have been under surveillance for two years”. Yet at the suspect’s first court appearance, the prosecutors requested a 14-day continuance to gather more evidence. The “court” ruled the suspects can be held in custody “until the Federal Ethics & Anti-”corruption” Commission (FEACC) could collect additional evidence to bring charges against them.”
If it took them 2 years to investigate the case, but couldn’t wait another 14 days to gather the last pieces of vital evidence before arresting and publicly parading the suspects? This is a trick they have used before. It is called arrest and jest. Put the suspects in jail, crucify them in the press and laugh at them as they languish in prison for months on end. There will be endless delays and continuances “to collect more evidence” and the “court” will allow it because the “court” does what it is told by their political bosses.
There is no judicial system in the world where suspects are arrested of committing crimes after being investigated for 2 years and then the prosecution asks for two more weeks to gather additional evidence. The regime’s trial by publicity and demonization will go on. They will keep pumping out unrebutted damaging information in flagrant disregard of the suspects’ constitutional rights to create hostile pretrial publicity. They talk with a loose tongue about the suspects crimes of “tampering with loan-sharking investigations”, “illegal trading and tax evasion”, “improprieties especially involving imports of steel”, etc. Such is the sad fact of corruptoid justice in the regime’s kangaroo courts. Arrest persons presumed to be innocent and go out and look for evidence of their guilt! What a crock of _ _ _ t!
Fall guys or grand fall
There is something strange about the regime’s current “corruption” narrative; and I must say it reflects very badly on Meles himself. According to reports, the “director general” (the alleged kingpin of the “corruption” ring) was appointed by Meles in 2008. He is a “senior cabinet member”. He is credited for “overseeing several tax reforms including widening the tax base, by requiring businesses to install cash registration machines and to become registered for Value Added Tax (VAT).” According to one report, “Under [the “director general”], the amount of revenues the federal government mobilized has reached 71 billion Br in 2011/12, a dramatic increase from the 19 billion Br collected before he took the position.”
Something is not right with that picture. Was Meles so blind and incompetent to select such a “corrupt man” to take the helm of his money making machine? Did Meles select him to oversee his corrupt empire because he knew the “director general” was the just right man for the job? Is it possible that the “director general” is a victim in a political power play? In any case, the arrest of the “director general” and the smear on his character and reputation reflects very poorly on Meles judgment, common sense and integrity. In my view, if the “director general” is truly the corruption ringleader, then he cannot possibly be the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses), perhaps an underboss or a consigliere.
The anticorruption warriors should be mindful of the law of unintended consequences. If they succeed in their corruption crusade, Meles’ legacy may be at extreme risk. When it came to corruption, Meles had a double standard. For instance, when 10,000 tons of coffee vanished from the warehouses, Meles forgave the coffee thieves and others “because we all have our hands in it”. He threatened to cut the hands of coffee thieves if they steal again. Meles was content to rail against “government thieves” without doing much more. Now Hailemariam wants a single standardof corruption applicable to all. For someone who worships Meles, Hailemariam’s move is downright heresy!
It is noteworthy that the last time Meles mounted a “corruption” investigation was over a decade ago when he rounded up some of his former comrades and their business associates and charged them with “corruption” and railroaded them to prison. Back in the mid-1990s, he jailed the “prime minister” of the “transitional government” on charges of corruption. That “prime minister” ate 12 years in Meles’ prisons. Hailemariam now, without warning, wants to go after all corruptitioners and cut off their hands? Is it going to be the legacy of corruption of Mr. Crook against the promise of good governance by anti-corruption crusader Mr. Clean?
Going after corruption, inc. (unlimited) — the real “holy cows” of “corruption”
In 2011, Meles publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statementtold them that he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In 2011, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) commissioned report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on “illicit financial flows” (money stolen by government officials and their cronies and stashed away in foreign banks) from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) revealed the theft of US$8.4 billion from Ethiopia. In 2009, over US $3 billion illicitly left Ethiopia. “The vast majority of the rise in illicit financial flows is a result of increased corruption, kickbacks, and bribery while the remainder stems from trade mispricing.”
In 2008 “USD16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight never to be seen again. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the current ruling party in Ethiopia, “Upon taking power in 1991… liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by a business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) cloasely allied with the ruling EPDRF party. EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks. “Generals” and other military leaders have managed to accumulate properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, a regime general told Voice of America Amharic that he was able to build a number of multistory buildings worth tens of millions of dollars because he was “given bank loans”.
There is an old Ethiopian saying which roughly translates as follows: “There is no beauty contest among monkeys.” A pig with lipstick at the end of the day is still a pig as the old saying goes. There are no good corruptoids. In any power struggle, it is not uncommon for one group of power players to accuse another of being corrupt. Bo Xilai (once touted to be the successor to President Hu Jintao in China) Liu Zhijun and other high level Chinese communist cadres are facing criminal and political sanctions for alleged abuses of power and accepting bribes. Mikhail Khodorkovsky (once considered the “wealthiest man in Russia”) was jacked up on “corruption” charges and given a long prison sentence. Corruption show trials are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of dictators who seek to neutralize their opponents. As I argued in my commentary “Africorruption”, Inc.”, the business of African “governments” including the Ethiopian regime in the main is corruption. Those who seized political power in Ethiopia in 1991 may have believed they were fighting for freedom and democracy, but once they got absolute power, they became absolutely corrupt. They began to function as sophisticated criminal enterprises with the principal aim of looting the national treasury and operating government as a criminal syndicate and a racket. If the regime is serious about corruption, it should go after the real “holy cows” of corruption, not just the unholy cows that have been forced to become scapegoats.
Scapegoating or “anti-corruption”?
The so-called “corruption investigation” appears to be a case of scapegoating. Tradition has it that on the day of atonement a goat would be selected by the high priest and loaded with the sins of the community and driven out into the wilderness as an affirmative act of symbolic cleansing. It made the people feel purged of evil and guiltless. The “corruption” suspects were supporters, defenders and handmaidens of the regime. Now they are made out to be loathsome villains. The sins and crimes of the regime are placed upon their heads and they are driven out into the wilderness. The high priests of the regimes are telling the people they have been cleansed and the community is free from evil. In this narrative, the regime “anti-corruption warriors” become the white knights in shining armor. But no amount of scapegoating can divert attention from the real situation. It is wise for those who live in glass houses not to throw stones.
How to deal with “horruption”
I am compelled to invent a new word to describe the horrible “corruption” in the ruling regime in Ethiopia. That word is, “horruption” (horrible corruption). The extended definition of this word is found in the World Bank’s corruption report on Ethiopia referenced above.
What is the best way to deal with horruption in Ethiopia? Simple. Line up the right social forces to fight corruption. Allow the free press to flourish so that it can aggressively and doggedly investigate and report corrupt officials and practices for public scrutiny. Establish an independent prosecutorial office properly budgeted and staffed (supported by certified international anti-corruption experts) to go after not only the small winnows but most importantly the big whales and sharks splish splashing in a sea of corruption. Take comprehensive measures to increase the transparency of all public institution and translate into action the mandate of Article 12 of the Ethiopian Constitution (Functions and Accountability of Government). Reduce the regime’s involvement in the economy. Allow the functioning of an independent judiciary that is capable of adjudicating corruption cases with full due process of law. Let civil society institutions flourish so that they can maintain ongoing vigilance and work at the grassroots levels to provide anti-corruption awareness, education, training and monitoring. Let there be a genuinely competitive multiparty system that can hold the ruling party and its officials accountable. In short, institutionalize the rule of law. Then we can act against “horruption” instead of talking about corruption.
The regime thinks they can distract attention by talking about “corruption” and selectively arresting a few of their own members and supporters and putting them on show trials. That is nice political theater but it will not solve the problem of horruption unless one believes, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Ethiopian people.”
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:
The sights and sounds of an African police state
When Erin Burnett of CNN visited Ethiopia in July 2012, she came face-to-face with the ugly face of an African police state:
We saw what an African police state looked like when I was in Ethiopia last month… At the airport, it took an hour to clear customs – not because of lines, but because of checks and questioning. Officials tried multiple times to take us to government cars so they’d know where we went. They only relented after forcing us to leave hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV gear in the airport…
Last week, reporter Solomon Kifle of the Voice of America (VOA-Amharic) heard the terrifying voice of an African police state from thousands of miles away. The veteran reporter was investigating widespread allegations of targeted night time warrantless searches of homes belonging to Ethiopian Muslims in the capital Addis Ababa. Solomon interviewed victims who effectively alleged home invasion robberies by “federal police” who illegally searched their homes and took away cash, gold jewelry, cell phones, laptops, religious books and other items of personal property.
One of the police officials Solomon interviewed to get reaction and clarification was police chief Zemedkun of Bole (an area close to the international airport in the capital).
VOA: Are you in the area of Bole. The reason I called…
Police Chief Zemedkun: Yes. You are correct.
VOA: There are allegation that homes belonging to Muslim Ethiopians have been targeted for illegal search and seizure. I am calling to get clarification.
Police Chief Zemedkun: Yes (continue).
VOA: Is it true that you are conducting such a search?
Police Chief Zemedkun: No, sir. I don’t know about this. Who told you that?
VOA: Individuals who say they are victims of such searches; Muslims who live in the area.
Police Chief Zemedkun: If they said that, you should ask them.
VOA: I can tell you what they said.
Police Chief Zemedkun: What did they say?
VOA: They said “the search is conducted by police officers; they [the police] threaten us without a court order; they take our property, particularly they focus on taking our Holy Qurans and mobile phones. Such are the allegations and I am calling to get clarification.
Police Chief Zemedkun: Wouldn’t it be better to talk to the people who told you that? I don’t know anything about that.
VOA: I just told you about the allegations the people are making.
Police Chief Zemedkun: Enough! There is nothing I know about this.
VOA: I will mention (to our listeners) what you said Chief Zemedkun. Are you the police chief of the sub-district ( of Bole)?
Police Chief Zemedkun: Yes. I am something like that.
VOA: Chief Zemedkun, may I have your last name?
Police Chief Zemedkun: Excuse me!! I don’t want to talk to anyone on this type of [issue] phone call. I am going to hang up. If you call again, I will come and get you from your address. I want you to know that!! From now on, you should not call this number again. If you do, I will come to wherever you are and arrest you. I mean right now!!
VOA: But I am in Washington (D.C)?
Police Chief Zemedkun: I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!
VOA: Are you going to come and arrest me?
End of interview.
Meles’ legacy: mini Me-leses, Meles wannabes and a police state
Flying off the handle, exploding in anger and igniting into spontaneous self-combustion is the hallmark of the leaders of the dictatorial regime in Ethiopia. The late Meles Zenawi was the icon of spontaneous self- combustion. Anytime Meles was challenged on facts or policy, he would explode in anger and have a complete meltdown.
Just before Meles jailed virtually the entire opposition leadership, civil society leaders and human rights advocates following the 2005 elections for nearly two years, he did exactly what police chief Zemedkun threatened to do to VOA reporter Solomon. Congressman Christopher Smith, Chairman of the House Africa Subcommitte in 2005 could not believe his ears as Meles’ arrogantly threatened to arrest and jail opposition leaders and let them rot in jail. Smith reported:
Finally, when I asked the Prime Minister to work with the opposition and show respect and tolerance for those with differing views on the challenges facing Ethiopia he said, ‘I have a file on all of them; they are all guilty of treason.’ I was struck by his all-knowing tone. Guilty! They’re all guilty simply because Meles says so? No trial? Not even a Kangaroo court? I urged Prime Minister Meles not to take that route.
In 2010, Meles erupted at a press conference by comparing the Voice of America (Amharic) radio broadcasts to Ethiopia with broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines which directed some of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Pointing an accusatory finger at the VOA, Meles charged: “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” (It seems one of Meles’ surviving police chiefs is ready to make good on Meles’ threat by travelling to Washington, D.C. and arresting a VOA reporter.)
Meles routinely called his opponents “dirty”, “mud dwellers”, “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He took sadistic pleasure in humiliating and demeaning parliamentarians who challenged him with probing questions or merely disagreed with him. His put-downs were so humiliating, few parliamentarians dared to stand up to his bullying.
When the European Union Election Observer Group confronted Meles with the truth about his theft of the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent, Meles had another public meltdown. He condemned the EU Group for preparing a “trash report that deserves to be thrown in the garbage.”
When Ken Ohashi, the former country director for the World Bank debunked Meles’ voodoo economics in July 2011, Meles went ballistic: “The individual [Ohashi) is used to giving directions along his neo-liberal views. The individual was on his way to retirement. He has no accountability in distorting the institutions positions and in settling his accounts. The Ethiopian government has its own view that is different from the individual.” (Meles talking about accountability is like the devil quoting Scripture.)
In a meeting with high level U.S. officials in advance of the May 2010 election, Meles went apoplectic telling the diplomats that “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.”
Meles’ hatred for Birtukan Midekssa (a former judge and the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history), a woman of extraordinary intelligence and unrivalled courage, was as incomprehensible as it was bottomless. After throwing Birtukan in prison in 2008 without trial or any form of judicial proceeding, Meles added insult to injury by publicly calling her a “chicken”. When asked how Birtukan was doing in prison, Meles, with sarcastic derision replied, “Birtukan Midiksa is fine but she may have gained weight due to lack of exercise.” (When Meles made the statement, Birtukan was actually in solitary confinement in Kality prison on the ridiculous charge that she “had denied receiving a pardon” when she was released in July 2007.) When asked if he might consider releasing her, Meles said emphatically and sadistically, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.”
Internationally acclaimed journalists Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye are all victims of arbitrary arrests and detentions. So are opposition party leaders and dissidents Andualem Arage, Nathnael Mekonnen, Mitiku Damte, Yeshiwas Yehunalem, Kinfemichael Debebe, Andualem Ayalew, Nathnael Mekonnen, Yohannes Terefe, Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher and many others.
Police chief Zemedkun is a mini-Me-les, a Meles wannabe. He is a mini tin pot tyrant. Like Meles, Zemedkun not only lost his cool but also all commonsense, rationality and proportionality. Like Meles, Zemedkun is filled with hubris (extreme arrogance which causes the person to lose contact with reality and feel invincible, unaccountable and above and beyond the law). Zemedkun, like Meles, is so full of himself that no one dare ask him a question: “I am the omnipotent police chief Zemedkun, the Absolute Master of Bole; the demigod with the power of arrest and detention. I am Police Chief Zemedkun created in the divine likeness of Meles Zenawi!”
What a crock of …!
When Meles massacred 193 unarmed protesters and wounded 763 others following the elections in 2005, he set the standard for official accountability, which happens to be lower than a snake’s knee. For over two decades, Meles created and nurtured a pervasive and ubiquitous culture of official impunity, criminality, untouchability, unaccountablity, brutality, incivility, illegality and immorality in Ethiopia.
The frightening fact of the matter is that today there are tens of thousands of mini-Me-leses and Meles wannabes in Ethiopia. What police chief Zemedkun did during the VOA interview is a simple case of monkey see, monkey do. Zemedkun could confidently threaten VOA reporter Solomon because he has seen Meles and his disciples do the same thing for over two decades with impunity. Zemedkun is not alone in trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens. He is not some rogue or witless policeman doing his thing on the fringe. Zemedkun is merely one clone of his Master. There are more wicked and depraved versions of Zemedkun masquerading as ministers of state. There are thousands of faceless and nameless “Zemedkunesque” bureaucrats, generals, judges and prosecutors abusing their powers with impunity. There are even soulless and heartless Zemedkuns pretending to be “holy men” of faith. But they are all petty tyrants who believe that they are not only above the law, but also that they are the personification of the law.
Article 12 and constitutional accountability
Article 12 of the Ethiopian Constitution requires accountability of all public officials: “The activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public… Any public official or elected representative shall be made accountable for breach of his official duties.”
Meles when he was alive, and his surviving disciples, police chiefs, generals and bureaucrats today are in a state of willful denial of the fact of constitutional accountability. (Meles believed accountability applied only to Ken Ohashi, the former World Bank country director.) The doltish police chief Zemedkun is clueless not only about constitutional standards of accountability for police search and seizure in private homes but also his affirmative constitutional obligation to perform his duties with transparency. This ignoramus-cum-police chief believes he is the Constitution, the law of the land, at least of Bole’s. He has the gall to verbally terrorize the VOA reporter, “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”
Freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, unbeknown to police chief Zemedkun, is guaranteed by Article 17 (Liberty) of the Ethiopian Constitution: “No one shall be deprived of his liberty except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law. No one shall be arrested or detained without being charged or convicted of a crime except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law.” Article 19 (Rights of Persons under Arrest) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Everyone shall have the right to be… specifically informed that there is sufficient cause for his arrest as soon as he appears in court. Zemedkun is ready to arrest the VOA reporter simply because the reporter asked him for his last name. What arrogance! What chutzpah!
It is a mystery to police chief Zemedkun that arbitrary deprivation of liberty is also a crime against humanity. Article 9 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights decrees that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights similarly provides: “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The deprivation of physical liberty (arbitrary arrest) constitutes a crime against humanity under Art. 7 (e) and (g) of the Rome Statute if there is evidence to show that the deprivation occurred as a result of systematic attack on a civilian population and in violation of international fair trial guarantees. The statements of the victims interviewed by VOA reporter Solomon appear to provide prima facie evidence sufficient to trigger an Article 7 investigation since there appears to be an official policy of systematic targeting of Muslims for arbitrary arrest and detention as part of a widespread campaign of religious persecution. The new prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou B. Bensouda, should launch such an investigation in proprio motu (on her own motion).
Meles has left an Orwellian legacy in Ethiopia. Police chief Zemedkun is only one policeman in a vast police state. He reaffirms the daily fact of life for the vast majority of Ethiopians that anyone who opposes, criticizes or disagrees with members of the post-Meles officialdom, however low or petty, will be picked up and jailed, and even tortured and killed. In “Mel-welliana” (the Orwellian police state legacy of Meles) Ethiopia, asking the name of a public official is a crime subject to immediate arrest and detention! In “Mel-welliana”, thinking is a crime. Dissent is a crime. Speaking the truth is a crime. Having a conscience is a crime. Peaceful protest is a crime. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is a crime. Standing up for democracy and human rights is a crime. Defending the rule of law is a crime. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is a crime.
A police chief, a police thug and a police thug state
It seems police chief Zemedkun is more of a police thug than a police chief. But listening to Zemedkun go into full meltdown mode, one cannot help but imagine him to be a cartoonish thug. As comical as it may sound, police chief Zemedkun reminded me of Yosemite Sam, that Looney Tunes cartoon character known for his grouchiness, hair-trigger temper and readiness to “blast anyone to smithereens”. The not-so-comical part of this farce is that police chief Zemedkun manifests no professionalism, civility or ethical awareness. He is obviously clueless about media decorum. Listening to him, it is apparent that Zemedkun has the personality of a porcupine, the temper of a Tasmanian Devil, the charm of an African badger, the intelligence of an Afghan Hound and the social graces of a dung beetle. But the rest of the high and mighty flouting the Constitution and abusing their powers like Zemedkun are no different.
The singular hallmark — the trademark — of a police thug state is the pervasiveness and ubiquity of arbitrary arrests, searches and detentions of citizens. If any person can be arrested on the whim of a state official, however high or petty, that is a police state. If the rights of citizens can be taken or disregarded without due process of law, that is a dreadful police state. Where the rule of law is substituted by the rule of a police chief, that is a police thug state.
For well over a decade, international human rights organizations and others have been reporting on large scale arbitrary arrests and detentions in Ethiopia. The 2011 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (issued on May 24, 2012) reported:
Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government often ignored these provisions in practice… The government rarely publicly disclosed the results of investigations into abuses by local security forces, such as arbitrary detention and beatings of civilians… Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and in some cases to family members, particularly in outlying regions… 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…
In its 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch reported: “Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in 2012… The security forces responded to protests by the Muslim community in Oromia and Addis Ababa, the capital, with arbitrary arrests, detentions, and beatings.”
Rarely does one hear human rights abusers publicly showing their true faces and confirming their victims’ allegations in such breathtakingly dramatic form. Police chief Zemedkun gave all Ethiopians a glimpse of the arrogant and lawless officialdom of Post-Meles Ethiopia. It is a glimpse of a police state in which an ignorant local police chief could feel so comfortable in his abuse of power that he believes he can travel to the United States of America and arrest and detain a journalist working for an independent agency of the United States Government. If this ill-mannered, ill-bred, cantankerous and boorish policeman could speak and act with such impunity, is it that difficult to imagine how the ministers, generals, prosecutors, judges and bureaucrats higher up the food chain feel about their abuses of power?
But one has to listen to and read the words of those whose heads are being crushed by the police in a police state. When it comes to crushing heads, themodus operandi is always the same. Use “robocops”. In 2005, Meles brought in hundreds of police and security men from different parts of the country who have limited proficiency in the country’s official language and used them to massacre 193 unarmed protesters and wound another 763. These “robocops” are pre-programmed killing machines, arresting machines and torture machines. They do what they are told. They ask no questions. They shoot and ask questions later. Hadid Shafi Ousman, a victim of illegal search and seizure, who spoke to VOA reporter Solomon, recounted in chilling detail what it meant to have one’s home searched by “robocop” thugs and goons who do not speak or have extremely limited understanding the official language of the country:
These are federal police. There are also civilian cadres. Sometimes they come in groups of 5-10. They are dressed in federal police uniform…. They are armed and carry clubs. They don’t have court orders. There are instances where they jump over fences and bust down doors… When they come, people are terrified. They come at night. You can’t say anything. They take mobile phones, laptops, the Koran and other things… They cover their faces so they can’t be identified. We try to explain to them. Isn’t this our country? If you are here to take anything, go ahead and take it…. They beat you up with clubs. If you ask questions, they beat you up and call you terrorists… First of all, these policemen do not speak Amharic well. So it is hard to understand them. When you ask them what we did wrong, they threaten to beat us. I told them I am a university student, so what is the problem? As a citizen, as a human being…Even they struggled and paid high sacrifices [fighting in the bush] to bring about good governance [to the people]. They did not do it so that some petty official could harass the people. When you say this to them, they beat you up…
Let there be no mistake. Zemedkun is not some isolated freakish rogue police chief in the Ethiopian police state. He is the gold standard for post-Meles governance. There are thousands of Zemedkuns that have infested the state apparatus and metastasized through the body politics of that country. For these Meles wannabes, constitutional accountability means personal impunity; illegal official activity means prosecutorial immunity; moral depravity means moral probity and crimes against humanity means legal impunity.
Cry, the beloved country
In 1948, the same year Apartheid became law in South Africa, Alan Paton wrote in “Cry, the Beloved Country”, his feeling of despair over the fate of South Africa:
Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”
Cry for our beloved Ethiopia!!
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:
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Terrorism by “Anti-terrorism Law”
Lately, Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia, has been rounding up dissidents, journalists, opposition party political leaders and members under a diktat known as “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009”. This diktat approved on a 286-91 vote of the rubberstamp parliament is so arbitrary and capricious that Human Rights Watch concluded “the law could provide a new and potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy.”
The “anti-terrorism law” is a masterpiece of ambiguity, unintelligibility, obscurity, superficiality, unclarity, uncertainty, inanity and vacuity. It defines “terrorism” with such vagueness and overbreadth that any act, speech, statement, and even thought, could be punished under its sweeping provisions. Anyone who commits a “terrorist act” with the aim of “advancing a political, religious or ideological cause” and intending to “influence the government”, “intimidate the public”, “destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social institutions of the country” could be condemned to long imprisonment or suffer the death penalty. Making or publishing statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” is a punishable offense under the “law”.
Anyone who provides “moral support or advice” or has any contact with an individual accused of a terrorist act is presumed to be a terrorist supporter. Anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts” is deemed a “terrorist”. Peaceful protesters who carry banners critical of the regime could be charged for “promotional statements encouraging” terrorist acts. Anyone who “disrupts any public service” is considered a “terrorist”; and workers who may legitimately grieve working conditions by work stoppages could be charged with “terrorism” for disruption. Young demonstrators who break windows in a public building by throwing rocks could be jailed as “terrorists” for “causuing serious damage to property.” A person who “fails to immediately inform or give information or evidence to the police” on a neighbor, co-worker or others s/he may suspect of “terrorism” could face upto 10 years for failure to report. Two or more persons who have contact with a “terror” suspect could be charged with conspiracy to commit “terrorism”.
The procedural due process rights (fair trial) of suspects and the accused guaranteed under the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights conventions are ignored, evaded, overlooked and disregarded by the “law”. “The police may arrest without court warrant any person whom he reasonably suspects to have committed or is committing a terrorism” and hold that person in incommunicado detention. The police can engage in random and “sudden search and seizure” of the person, place or personal effects of anyone suspected of “terrorism”. The police can “intercept, install or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, internet, electronic, postal, and similar communications” of a person suspected of terrorism. The police can order “any government institution, official, bank, or a private organization or an individual” to turn over documents, evidence and information on a “terror” suspect.
A “terror” suspect can be held in custody without charge for up to “four months”. Any “evidence” presented by the regime’s prosecutor against a “terror” suspect in “court” is admissible, including “confessions” (extracted by torture), “hearsay”, “indirect, digital and electronic evidences” and “intelligence reports even if the report does not disclose the source or the method it was gathered (including evidence obtained by torture). The “law” presumes the “terror” suspect to be guilty and puts the burden of proof on the suspect/defendant in violation of the universal principle that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Such is the “anti-terrorism law” that was used to arrest and jail Eskinder Nega, Debebe Eshetu, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Taye, Zemenu Molla, Nathnael Makonnen, Asaminaw Birhanu, and Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye and thousands of others over the past few months and years. In any country where the rule of law prevails and an independent judiciary thrives, such a “law” would not pass the smell test let alone a constitutional one. But in a world of kangaroo courts, rubberstamp parliaments and halls of vengance and injustice, the diktat of one man is the law of the land. So, 2011 Ethiopia has become George Orwell’s 1984: Thinking is terrorism. Dissent is terrorism. Speaking truth to power is terrorism. Having a conscience is terrorism. Peaceful protest is terrorism. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism. Standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism. Defending the rule of law is terrorism. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism.
Dictatorship is State Terrorism
Zenawi’s “anti-terrorism” diktat is intended to muzzle journalists from criticizing, youths from peaceably demonstrating, opposition parties from political organizing, ordinary citizens from speaking, civic leaders from mobilizing, teachers from imparting knowledge, lawyers from advocating scholars from analyzing and the entire nation from questioning his dictatorial rule. It is a “law” singularly intended to criminalize speech, police thought, outlaw critical publications, intimidate hearts, crush spirits, terrorize minds and shred constitutional and internationally-guaranteed human rights. When the State uses the “law” to silence and violently stamp out dissent, jail and keep in solitary confinement dissenters, opposition leaders and members, suppress the press and arbitrarily arrest journalists, trash human rights with impunity, trample upon the rule of law and scoff at constitutional accountability, does it not become a terrorist state?
“Softness to traitors will destroy us all,” said Maximilien Robespierre, the mastermind and architect of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. Robespierre justified the use of terror by the state to crush all opposition and those he considered enemies of the state: “Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people’s mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people’s cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution-are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?” asked Robespierre rhetorically as he rounded up tens of thousands of innocent French citizens for the guillotine.
Zenawi once provided a definitive answer to his “enemies within and without”: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” He is always ready to crush, smash and thrash his opposition. He described the leaders of opposition political coalition that won the 2005 elections as a bunch of “insurrectionists” (euphemism for “terrorists”): “The CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law.” When 193 unarmed demonstrators were massacred and 763 grievously wounded by security officers, Zenawi shed crocodile tears but said they were all terrorists lobbing grenades: “I regret the deaths but these were not normal demonstrations. You don’t see hand grenades thrown at normal demonstrations.” His own handpicked Inquiry Commission contradicted him after a meticulous investigation: “There was no property destroyed. There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade (as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs). The shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protester.”
Zenawi has demonized opposition groups as “terrorists” bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people.” He has put on “trial” and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of the Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described that Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has undertaken a systematic campaign of intimidation against his critics describing them in his speeches as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was filthy and trying to “dirty up the people like themselves.”
In the police state Ethiopia has become, opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24/7 surveillance, and the ordinary people they meet in the street are intimidated, harassed and persecuted. The climate of fear that permeates every aspect of urban and rural society is reinforced and maintained by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making impossible dissent or peaceful opposition political activity. As former president and presently opposition leader Dr. Negasso Gidada has documented, the structure of state terrorism in Ethiopia is so horrific one can only find parallels for it in Stalin-era Soviet Union:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
State terrorism is the systematic use and threat of use of violence and coercion, intimidation, imprisonment and persecution to create a prevailing climate of fear in a population with a specific political message and outcome: “Resistance is futile! Resistance will be crushed! There will be no resistance! ” State terrorism paralyzes the whole society and incapacitates individuals by entrenching fear as a paramount feature of social inaction and immobilization through the exercise of arbitrary power and extreme brutality. In Ethiopia today, it is not just that the climate of fear and loathing permeates every aspect of social and economic life, indeed the climate of fear has transformed the “Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine” in to the “Land of Thirteen Months of Fear, Loathing, Despair and Darkness”.
Inspirational Thought from Nelson Mandela
Africa’s greatest leader, Nelson Mandela, was jailed for 27 years as a “terrorist” by the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1993, three years after he left the notorious Robben Island prison, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Those jailed as “terrorists” in Ethiopia should draw great comfort and inspiration from the words of the greatest African leader alive:
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.
We should all express our admiration, gratitude and appreciation for today’s “terrorists” and tomorrow’s peacemakers, conciliators, hopegivers and nation-builders.
Free Eskinder Nega, Debebe Eshetu, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Taye, Zemenu Molla, Nathnael Makonnen, Asaminaw Birhanu, Johan Persson, Martin Schibbye and thousands of other unknown and unnamed Ethiopian political prisoners.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/