Contrary to the government's allegations, eyewitness testimony and information from local sources indicate that Ethiopian authorities responded with unprovoked violence to students demanding greater academic freedom, and are now using the ensuing crisis to justify a general crackdown on figures critical of the government. The government's mishandling of what was initially a non-violent and non-political protest provoked widespread disturbances on April 17 and 18. Some forty people were killed and nearly four hundred injured by the security forces, who used live ammunition against the protesters. Authorities briefly detained two thousand students, and continue to detain hundreds under harsh conditions, including student activists and members of two opposition parties accused of instigating the protests. (See HRW press release "Ethiopia: Government Attacks Universities, Civil Society," May 10, 2001).
The government's detention of Prof. Mesfin and Dr. Berhanu appears aimed at crippling the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), the only openly operating human rights monitoring group in the country. Prof. Mesfin and Dr. Berhanu had conducted a public session of human rights education on behalf of EHRCO at the campus of Addis Ababa University on April 8. An EHRCO official told Human Rights Watch that the students' council had requested the organization of this session for the benefit of its members in early February 2001, but EHRCO was only able to organize it in April due to the Council's involvement in monitoring local elections in the preceding weeks. EHRCO's public session took place at the campus as students were peacefully pressing the University administration and the government for greater academic freedoms.
On May 18th, the fifth criminal bench of Ethiopia's Federal High Court denied Prof. Mefsin and Dr. Berhanu bail for the second time, and ordered them held for another week to allow the police to compile evidence in support of its case against them. Their first court appearance was on May 9th, at which bail was also denied on the ground that the two might seek to hide evidence from their homes and offices if they were released. The court was unimpressed by arguments advanced by a defense counsel on May 18th that the two were prominent scholars and would in no way seek to evade trial or tamper with evidence if it existed.
Since the two were arrested, the police have repeatedly searched their homes and sealed the office of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. Policemen who arrived first at EHRCO's office on May 8 asked to search all of the organization's files since its establishment in 1991, supposedly to locate documents related to the incitement of students to violence that allegedly took place in early April 2001. The policemen sealed the office when EHRCO's workers refused to participate in the search, effectively preventing the organization from conducting its normal business from the premises. That the organization was itself a primary target of the sweep could be established from the fact that policemen on April 18 had briefly detained Yared Haile Giorgis and Cherenet Tadesse, two members of its investigative team. A third employee of EHRCO reportedly was forced to change his residence following repeated police harassment.
Held at the Central Investigation Bureau's prison, the two rights advocates have gone on a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Prof. Mesfin, aged 71 years, and Dr. Berhanu, who is in his early 40s, suffer from medical conditions that increase their vulnerability to the harsh detention conditions they are made to endure.
The court supported its denial of bail by attributing to the activists "inflammatory speeches at a gathering to which Addis Ababa University students were invited." However, the two activists have categorically rejected these allegations, which first surfaced in repeated government statements prior to their arrest. Prof. Mesfin told Human Rights Watch on May 7 that he and his colleague had never preached violence to the students. "What we did was to explain to the students basic human and academic rights principles. The students were extremely peaceful in their campaign for greater academic freedoms," Prof. Mesfin said.
Similarly, eyewitness testimony and local reports indicate that the government used excessive force in response to student demands for less government control over Addis Ababa University and thus enflamed what began as a peaceful, local protest.
Courts in Ethiopia have a record of routinely granting extensions of the period during which individuals may be held in detention, while the police collect evidence to bring charges against them, without enquiring as to the need for the suspects to be held in custody. Police investigations usually progress at a snail's pace, and court hearings convene only to be rescheduled months later. Cases last for years during which activists and government critics, apparently held only for their nonviolent criticism of the government, are made to endure harsh detention conditions.
Founded in 1991, EHRCO seeks to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia by investigating and documenting human right abuses and raising public awareness about these principles. The session that authorities claim had incited student violence was part of EHRCO's regular activities. During the May 2000 parliamentary elections in Ethiopia, for example, EHRCO was one of a handful of civic organizations that convened panel discussions for candidates in the capital, and critically analyzed voting operations in its public statements and reports, at times denouncing abuses that marred the process.
EHRCO's decade of existence is in itself a tribute to the tenacity and continuing struggle of Ethiopian rights advocates to assert a hard-won right to monitor and expose abuses committed by the government and to contribute to greater respect for human rights in their country. For eight years the government denied official recognition to the organization, a requirement under Ethiopian law, and persistently harassed the organization's members when they still carried out monitoring activities. The government officially registered EHRCO only in May 1999. The same year, the group won a court ruling that allowed it to access its bank account after several years of a government-ordered freeze.
The government's attempt to intimidate EHRCO and silence its leaders reached its peak on May 8, 1997 when the police shot and killed Assefa Maru, at the time a member of EHRCO's executive committee and also the acting president of the beleaguered Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA). The federal police claimed that the activist had resisted arrest when a police force was about to arrest him with accomplices for their involvement in preparing an unspecified terrorist attack. In July 1997, Human Rights Watch interviewed three eyewitnesses who contradicted the official story and said the activist was gunned down while he was on his way to his office at the teachers' association headquarters. Rather than the confrontation with an armed group described in official accounts of the killing, the eyewitnesses described a drive-by assassination that involved at least three police teams and an ambulance that, according to the witnesses, acted in rapid and coordinated succession. Despite intensive international pressures, the government has yet to explain the role of the police in this killing and to hold those responsible for it accountable.
The Human Rights League
On Friday May 11th 2001, the Federal High Court acquitted twenty-eight individuals, including members of the Human Rights League, arrested in October 1997 on charges of supporting the insurgent Oromo Liberation Front. The trial of some thirty-two other prominent members of the Oromo community, detained since 1997 and 1998, remain pending. Addisu Beyene, secretary-general of the Oromo Relief Association, and founding member of the League, was among those released. League member Hussein Abdi has to re-appear in court in three weeks to present some papers.
A group of individuals, mostly Oromo community elders and civic leaders, founded the Human Rights League on December 7, 1996, and immediately applied to the competent government authority to register the association. Not only did the government fail to register the League, but in October 1997 authorities arrested seven of the League's fifteen board members and the organization's elected secretary. A year later, the government raided the office of the league and confiscated its equipment and records. The trial of the League's members for conspiracy with the OLF lasted for forty-three months, during which they were made to appear in court forty-one times, with the ruling postponed at each occasion to allow police more time to prove its case against them. Finally the Federal High Court acquitted the defendants on May 11th.
In its brief, officially unacknowledged, existence, the League defined an ambitious mission for itself: A "commitment to making continuous and strenuous legal effort to ensure that citizens are protected against the violations of their human rights; that they live in freedom and dignity, free from arbitrary arrest, beatings and imprisonment." The objectives the League was prevented from undertaking included the conduct of civic education activities to increase the consciousness of citizens about their democratic and civil rights and the monitoring of and reporting on human rights violations in the country. The League envisaged lobbying the government for legislation favoring human rights. The government instead resorted to legal maneuvers to terminate the League's operations and silence its founders and activists.
Other Monitoring Groups
While the Ethiopian government tolerates human rights organizations with a mandate of human rights and civic education, it selectively intimidates and represses groups that monitor and report on human rights abuses. Among the groups that government harassment has forced underground or into exile, are the Ogaden Human Rights Committee, the Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners, and the Oromo Ex-Prisoners for Human Rights.
Article 31 of the Ethiopian constitution provides: "Every person has the right to freedom of association for any cause or purpose. Associations which undertake acts that lawlessly subvert the rule of law and constitutional rule are prohibited." In practice, the government has a long record of imposing stringent controls even upon humanitarian organizations, leading in cases to the closure of organizations that are not subordinated to government agencies and government-sponsored programs. As the examples of EHRCO and The Human Rights League show, the government has also repeatedly clamped down on human rights monitoring groups and outspoken rights defenders to silence them.