Arrested, jailed and beaten, tortured and imprisoned, this 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.
Amnesty International in its damning report of the Ethiopian government, Dismantling Dissent in Ethiopia (DDE); state 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 all were 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 to justify the unjust, the dishonest and the criminal. There is indeed 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, 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 peoples freedom and human rights ever since.
In 2009 the Ethiopian government passed legislation on the highly controversial Anti Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2009 looked closely at what was then the proposed law and amongst other recommendations held high within their fury and despair, said, “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.”
It is the utilisation and enforcement of this unlawful law that is enabling the Ethiopian government to silence dissent within the country and those voices for fairness, justice and common sense 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. The police, who were already commonly acting outside of the law, with little or no knowledge of human rights, were given new and unlawful powers. HRW states, “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 as with many articles of decency and good intention are 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 unjust legislation was enforced strengthening police power, HRW tells us “Ethiopian police routinely detain people without charge for months, and sometimes ignore judicial orders for release.”
Five of many
In January five more innocent 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 practice as Amnesty found in the 108 cases they investigated, “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 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 recent examples in a long line of miscarriages of ‘justice’, where the outlaw government has 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 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.” Indeed. Journalists must be free to speak out against the government, to criticise policies of persecution and to draw attention to the multiple human rights abuses taking place. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, “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 those speaking out in despair and anger at the EPRDF’s violence and apathy are subject not simply to ‘pressure’, or ‘criminal proceedings’, but violent arrest, torture and false imprisonment, or indeed death.
Free the innocent
These five innocent 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 and mistreatment whilst in jail. 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 held in Maikelawi, Amnesty reveals in its report, “many of the (108) 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. 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. 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.
The Ethiopian government cannot be believed or trusted, independent observers of the judicial system should be imposed by the international bodies supporting the country, as Amnesty International demands, “in the absence of a functioning civil society in a position to undertake trial monitoring, Amnesty is calling 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 independent 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 under duress is admissible in court. This is illegal under The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Ethiopian Constitution. Article 19 of which 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 in colours green red and yellow, framed, hangs upon a wall of indifference and conceit, unenforced; it means little or nothing to the people and even less to the EPRDF who ignore its charter.
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 the increasingly paranoid gaze of Prime Minister Meles and his ministerial menagerie. How do we as a world community, responsible and alert to the needs of others respond to such men, to such injustice and tyranny? Mahatma Ghandi told us “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 delivering the much-needed financial and developmental aid, was applied to put an end to the current regimes human rights violations and abuses of people, including freezing of personal assets and targeted sanctions. The British government give £315 million a year to Ethiopia, a spokesperson from he 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." All well and good, but all too easy for the arrogant to shrug off, outrage and horror is more apt response from Westminster and in keeping with the offences being committed. Criticism alone will not bring change within the regime and justice to the long-suffering people.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presides over a brutal manipulative 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. The Anti terrorist Proclamation is an unjust piece of legislation designed and implemented by a corrupt and violent regime, who are in breech of international law and there own constitution. It must be repealed immediately, the many innocent good men and women falsely imprisoned must be released and those supporting Ethiopia through aid donations should insist on the implementation of these legitimate and morally right demands. Sit not in silent appeasement; raise your bowed heads and act.