Unlawful Imprisonment in Ethiopia

Arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.  This is the recipe for justice that the Ethiopian government serves up to dissenting voices, men and women peacefully exercising their democratic right, demanding their human rights, crying out for their moral rights. The victimised are not only those living within Ethiopia who attempt to offer an alternative to the current dictatorship, who form and organise political opposition to the Meles regime, but journalists inside Ethiopia and abroad, who dare to speak out in criticism of the government’s criminality, human rights violations and policies of indifference.

Amnesty International, in its damning report of the Ethiopian government, Ethiopia: Dismantling Dissent (DDE),states that from March to November 2011 “at least 108 opposition party members and six journalists have been arrested for alleged involvement with various proscribed terrorist groups.” By November they were all charged with crimes under the internationally criticised Anti Terrorist Proclamation. In addition, Amnesty continues, “six journalists, two opposition party members and one human rights defender, all living in exile, were charged in absentia.”

The ‘T’ word, as former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan called terrorism, is the umbrella term used by the Ethiopian government (amongst others) to justify the unjust, the dishonest and the criminal. If there is a terrorist organisation flourishing in Ethiopia, committing crimes against humanity and violating the human rights of the people, it is State terrorism delivered by the EPRDF government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as this UN definition of terrorism makes clear:

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable.

Fear of the government, fear of reprisal, of violence and [false] imprisonment casts a deep shadow across the people of Ethiopia, whose human rights are being ignored by the Meles regime that seized power twenty years ago and has brutalised and systematically restricted the people’s freedom and human rights ever since.

Lawless Lawmakers

In 2009 the Ethiopian government passed legislation on the highly controversial Anti Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) that year looked closely at what was then the proposed law and amongst other recommendations, stated:

If implemented this law could provide the Ethiopian government with a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy and … it would permit long-term imprisonment and even the death penalty for “crimes” that bear no resemblance, under any credible definition, to terrorism. It would in certain cases deprive defendants of the right to be presumed innocent, and of protections against use of evidence obtained through torture.

Needless to say, the law was passed almost entirely as drafted, duly implemented and has since been used solely to silence dissent. Amnesty International, in its report, found that:

The prolonged series of arrests and prosecutions indicates a systematic use of the law and the pretext of counter-terrorism by the Ethiopian government to silence people who criticise or question their actions and policies, especially opposition politicians and the independent media.

It is the utilisation and enforcement of this law that is enabling the Ethiopian government to quash opposition and free speech within the country and intimidate those voices for fairness and justice abroad. The legislation allows the government to ban free association and to arrest and imprison anyone who has the courage to speak out against the government and their many human rights violations. The police, who were already commonly acting outside of the law, with little or no knowledge of human rights, were given new powers. HRW, in its analysis, reported:

The draft Proclamation grants the police the power to make arrests without a warrant, so long as the officer reasonably suspects that the person is committing or has committed a terrorist act. The Ethiopian constitution requires that a person taken into custody must be brought before a court within 48 hours and informed of the reasons for their arrest — a protection that is already systematically violated.

This constitutional requirement is dutifully ignored. Arrested under the Anti Terrorist Proclamation, individuals are held in confinement for weeks, sometimes months, without charge and denied legal support. Even before this draconian legislation was enforced, according to HRW,  “Ethiopian police routinely detain people without charge for months, and sometimes ignore judicial orders for release.”

Five From Many

In January five more people were convicted in the Ethiopian Federal High Court of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, and money laundering. Evidence against the three journalists, an opposition leader, and a woman, Hirut Kifle Woldeyesus, was made up primarily of online criticism of the government and plans to stage peaceful political protest, none of which constitute acts of terrorism. This is common as Amnesty found in the 114 cases they investigated in their detailed report:

Much of the evidence against those charged involves items that do not appear to amount to terrorism or criminal wrongdoing. Rather many items of evidence cited appear to be illustrations of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, acting peacefully and legitimately.

Two of the journalists tried in January were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment while Elias Kifle (tried in absentia), editor of the web-based journal Ethiopian Review, received his second life sentence [emphasis mine]. These cases are simply the most recent in a long line of miscarriages of justice, where the government has exercised an abuse of power and in the name of justice imprisoned the innocent. A further 24 journalists and opposition party members are awaiting trial, many of whom could face the death penalty, for trumped up charges which amount to nothing more than journalists exercising their constitutional and moral right to freedom of speech.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, stated in a meeting of UN human rights investigators in February:

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.

Journalists must be free to speak out against the government, to criticise policies of persecution, to highlight the suffering of the people and to draw attention to the multiple human rights abuses taking place within Ethiopia. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, declared:

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.

However,  all those speaking out against the EPRDF’s criminality and repression are subject not simply to “pressure”, or “criminal proceedings”, but violent arrest, torture and false imprisonment or, indeed, death.

Free the Innocent

These five men and women, who were mistreated in custody, falsely imprisoned and like others, including the celebrated writer Eskinder Nega (imprisoned for life in September for writing an on-line blog), denied their liberty, must be released immediately and an independent enquiry instigated to investigate their cases, their treatment whilst in jail and their hollow convictions. During their three-month imprisonment at the Maikelawi detention center before the trial and in violation of Ethiopian and international law, the defendants were denied access to legal counsel and family members, and claim they were beaten and tortured. This is the experience of a great many whilst held in Maikelawi as Amnesty reveals in its report:

Many of the [114] detainees were forced to sign confessions and to acknowledge ownership or association by signing items of seemingly incriminating evidence.

The Ethiopian courts have not investigated any of these claims.  They are, it seems, nothing more than servants of the Government, and are as HRW states “complicit in this political witch hunt.”

This collusion of the courts contravenes the Ethiopian constitution that states in Article 78/1: “An independent judiciary is established by this Constitution.” Article 79/1: “Judicial Powers, both at Federal and State levels, are vested in the courts.”

Furthermore, 3: “Judges shall exercise their functions in full independence and shall be directed solely by the law.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, “deplored the reported failure to ensure the defendants’ right to a fair trial,” reports the UN News Centre.

Amnesty International, in its report, calls “on the representatives of the international community in Addis Ababa to take up the role of monitoring trials.” This would be an important initial act in placing the EPRDF under international scrutiny and accountability. It is time the international community, acting through the UN, undertook its responsibility and role as advocate for justice, self-determination, “the suppression of acts of aggression” (Article 1) and freedom for the people of the world, in accordance with its Charter.

A Blind Eye to Torture

In addition to the suppression of free speech, the use of the death penalty and withdrawing the legal right of presumption of innocence, torture is allowed under the Anti Terrorism Proclamation and information gathered whilst under such duress is admissible in court. HRW reports that::

The draft Proclamation deems confessions admissible without a restriction on the use of statements made under torture.

This is illegal under international law, The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment does not allow the use of any statements made in a court of law, that were elicited under torture. The use of such information is also prohibited under the Ethiopian Constitution. Article 19 states:

Persons arrested shall not be compelled to make confessions or admissions which could be used in evidence against them. Any evidence obtained under coercion shall not be admissible.

The much-trumpeted constitution  means little or nothing to the people and even less to the EPRDF who ignore its charter.

Known Unknowables

It is an acknowledged fact within the corridors of the UN and Ethiopia’s donor countries that human rights abuses are occurring daily within the country under Prime Minister Meles and his ministerial menagerie. How do we as a world community, responsible and alert to the needs of our brothers and sisters, respond to such men, to such injustice and tyranny? Fight fire with fire many would advocate and in the face of such cruelty many of us would perhaps gladly fuel a furnace.  However, as Mahatma Ghandi said, “I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can teach you not to bow your heads before anyone even at the cost of your life.”

To be silent in the sight of injustice and persecution is to allow tyrants like Meles to maintain their stranglehold over the innocent. It is time intense political pressure from those providing and delivering the much-needed financial and developmental aid, was applied to put an end to the current regime’s human rights violations and abuse of the people, including freezing of personal assets and targeted sanctions.

The British government gives £315 million a year to Ethiopia, a spokesperson from The Department for International Development (DFID) told the Guardian (3/02/2012):

The prime minister, the foreign secretary and the secretary of state for international development have all raised concerns with Prime Minister Meles over the recent arrests of opposition leaders and journalists.

“Concern” is all well and good, but all too easy for the arrogant to shrug off, outrage and horror a more apt response from Westminster and more in keeping with the offences being committed. Criticism alone, however, will not bring change within the abysmal regime and justice to the long-suffering people.

Repeal and Release

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presides over a dictatorship that restricts all freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the media in Ethiopia. Peaceful dissent is met with violence and false imprisonment. Intimidation and fear are the key tools in such repression.  This must end, and we, the international community, must ensure it is so.

The Anti-Terrorist Proclamation is an unjust piece of legislation designed and implemented by a corrupt and violent regime who is in breach of international law and their own constitution. It must be repealed immediately, the many innocent good men and women falsely imprisoned released and those supporting Ethiopia through development aid should insist on the implementation of these legitimate and morally right demands. Sit not in silent appeasement, but raise your bowed heads and act.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.