December 1997 Vol. 9, No. 8 (A)





To the Ethiopian Government 6

To the International Community 7


The Constitutional and Legal Framework 9

The Judiciary 9

The Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman Institution 12

The Prisons 13

Public Order and Internal Security 13

The National Police 13

Peasant Militia 14

The Army 16


Legal Standards 18

Arbitrary Arrest and Administrative Detention 18

Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 19

The Derg Trials 19

Internal Political Purges and Related Detentions 21

Repression in Conflict Areas 22

Somali Region 22

Southern Peoples Region 23

Oromia Region 24

Places of Detention 25

Harassment of family members 26

Regional Security Agreements 27

The Total Number of Detainees and Access to Detention Places 29


The Right to Freedom of Expression 30

The Legal Standards 30

The 1992 Press Act 31

The Right to Freedom of Association 34

International Legal Standards 34

Political Opposition Parties 35

Trade Unions 36

Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA) 36

Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) 41

Nongovernmental Organizations 41

The Case of the Oromo Relief Association (ORA 43

Human Rights and Democracy and Governance Organizations 45

The Right of Peaceful Assembly 46

Legal Standards 46


European Union and Other Members of the Donor Community 49

United States 51



In May 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in Ethiopia, having defeated the Derg military dictatorship after almost two decades of civil war. The Derg had presided over one of the darkest periods in recent Ethiopian history, a time in which security forces orchestrated the elimination of thousands of suspected members of urban opposition groups. In rural areas, government attempts to repress rebellious ethnic groups and regions translated into indiscriminate military campaigns that targeted unarmed civilians in total disregard of basic norms of international humanitarian law. Economic mismanagement and tight state's control over the economy further exacerbated the vulnerability of the rural population. An estimated one million people succumbed to starvation and disease during the tragic famine of the mid-eighties, a disaster due in large part to misguided government policies. Thousands of impoverished peasants died as the government forced the entire populations of famine-affected regions to relocate. The Derg's interest in its own political survival was, however, more central in the ill-fated move than humanitarian concerns.

The Derg was defeated not long after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a time in which democratic movements were resurgent internationally, most notably in the countries of the eastern block. In Africa, these developments signaled the fall from favor of the one-party centralized state and military rule. The winds of change called for multipartyism, democratic freedoms, and respect for human rights. Western powers mandated the adoption of a market economy and democratic participation, conditioning economic assistance on these criteria.

Internal factors were, however, equally decisive in shaping the EPRDF's proclaimed commitments to democratization and human rights. With the legacy of the Derg behind it, the EPRDF proclaimed, as it instituted a four-year transitional period (1991-1995), its commitment to democratization and the respect of the rule of law and pledged to establish human rights in the country. The transitional legislature ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention Against Torture). Both the transitional charter and the constitution of today's Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, adopted at the end of the transitional period, give prominence to human and peoples' rights, with thirty-two articles of the constitution devoted to detailed human rights provisions. Furthermore, the constitution provides for the incorporation into domestic laws of all the human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is party.

The transitional government and the federal government gradually enacted laws that guaranteed the respect of human rights and civil liberties and instituted the independence of the judiciary and the press. Multipartyism was instituted, and free universal suffrage introduced, theoretically allowing the convening of competitive elections for the first time in the country's history. Being a coalition of ethnically-based liberation fronts that the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated, the alliance actively promoted a policy of ethnic federalism that was to influence the subsequent constitutional, political, and administrative restructuring of the country.

Ethnically-based fronts and opposition parties, as well as emerging civil groups-including human rights and democratization organizations-eagerly moved to occupy the democratic spaces created by these constitutional and legal reforms. It became increasingly clear, however, that they could only do so within the limits and controls drawn by the new rulers. The ruling EPRDF dominated the political system by favoring regional parties affiliated with it and clamping down on opposition groups. It also sought to dominate the emerging civil society through bureaucratic and legal restrictions and various forms of harassment of activists. As a result, the political landscape in the country remained overwhelmingly dominated by the EPRDF. The alliance embraced under its umbrella a number of regional parties. These parties were promoted to command positions in local administration and received government support during a series of local and national elections from 1992 to 1995 that ensured their dominance over regional legislatures. Several independent political groupings and ethnically-based fronts which had significant support in their respective ethnic homelands, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), complained in the early periods of the transition about political harassment and killingsof their activists, claims which later were corroborated by independent observers. On the other hand, urban elites who were recruited in the past from the dominant Amhara group, and who were attached to traditional forms of centralized government fiercely opposed the policies of ethnic federalism that the EPRDF actively promoted. The opposition groups opted to boycott the series of elections that marked the phases of the political restructuring of the country, alleging serious official impediments to free political campaigning. The boycott only confirmed the accession of the EPRDF and its affiliates to a position of virtual dominance of the political process.

The emerging contours of the political scene generated a particular set of human rights problems. In remote regions, where government forces sporadically confronted armed dissident groups pressing for self determination on ethnic grounds, village shakedowns followed armed encounters or were used to preempt these. As a result, hundreds of civilians were held in 1996 and 1997 under the authority of regional governments that suspected them of supporting armed opposition groups. As documented in this report, this particular category of detainees faced the greatest risk of political killings, torture, and harsh and inhumane treatment, mainly at the hands of members of rural militias and other security forces that enforce law and order in remote rural areas.

Other crackdowns severely curtailed the exercise of civil and political rights. The government attempted to bring a boisterous private press in line by the routine use of detention and imprisonment, and the imposition of prohibitive fines and bail amounts on journalists and editors. The exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association was severely curtailed as activists loyal to the government targeted the two largest labor organizations in the country, the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA) and the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), for control. Indicative of the predicament of ETA was that its president, Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat, started his second year in prison in May 1997, pending the conclusion of his trial on charges of heading an armed clandestine anti-government group. In earlier phases of his protracted trial the court had decided to drop other charges against him, including his alleged participation in a bomb attack against the compound of the United State Agency for International Development (USAID), and the abduction of two Italians. On May 8, 1997, the police said it had shot and killed his successor at the head of ETA, Assefa Maru. The police statement claimed that the union official, who was also an executive committee member of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council, resisted arrest when police caught him preparing a terrorist act with other accomplices, and said he had replaced Dr. Taye as the leader of the clandestine armed group. The general secretary of ETA, who at the time of the killing of his colleague was on an overseas business trip, opted not to return to the country. In the meantime, the government continued to subject the remaining four members of ETA's executive committee to various forms of harassment and pressure. Abate Angore, who headed the members' affairs department, was arrested in March 1996, and spent two months in detention in Addis Ababa without charges or trial for his role in protesting a police raid on ETA premises. On September 21, 1996, he was again arbitrarily detained in the Southern Region, when he went there on family business, and regional authorities found ETA literature with him. He was only released in mid-March 1997. By mid-year, ETA had received reports that at least seventy teachers were detained in Arbe Minch, the capital of that region, mainly because regional authorities suspected them of remaining loyal to ETA. Similar tactics had succeeded in bringing CETU into the government fold after a protracted confrontation with its elected leadership.

Despite constitutional guarantees of the right to associate and organize, conflicting policy and administrative regulations have left non-governmental organizations in confusion and uncertainty. Newly founded organizations have found it difficult to register, some already existing organizations have been deregistered. The government continued to deny the veteran Ethiopian Human Rights Council legal status, contending that it was a political organization. The council's bank account was frozen in 1995 following the publication of a critical report, although its operations out of its Addis Ababa office continued to be tolerated. The newly founded Human Rights League, was by September 1997 still waiting government formal approval to be able to assume its mandate of human rights education, monitoring and reporting, ten months after submitting all the required forms, articles of association, and annual plans of activity to the competent government department. Authorities in Gode, Somali Region, raided the office of the newly established Ogaden Human Rights Committee in June 1996 and confiscated documents and office equipment. Activists and workers fled the town to Addis Ababa fearing arrest. Their internal exile rendered thepromotion and protection of human rights in their remote region a most difficult task. Founded in 1992, the Oromo Ex-Prisoners For Human Rights similarly continued to function in a perilous clandestinity.

Under Ethiopian law, organizers of political meetings and demonstrations are required only to notify the competent government authorities prior to convening an event. The government managed, however, to restrict freedom of assembly by introducing a de facto permit system by virtue of which it stalled in acknowledging notifications and declared events which went ahead anyway as illegal, and therefore subject to dispersal and the arrest of participants. The government required some of those it arrested for taking part in political meetings and anti-government demonstrations, such as the 1997 demonstrations in Addis Ababa by shopkeepers and students, to submit written statements admitting their participation in an illegal activity, promising not to repeat the act, and praying for its pardon to be released. With threats of unspecified punishments hanging over their heads, the detained demonstrators all submitted to this humiliating ritual, which in addition implied that they would forfeit their constitutional right of peaceful assembly.

In 1994, Human Rights Watch published "Reckoning Under the Law," a report about the process which was about to start to render officials of the Derg accountable for the atrocities committed during that period. By the third quarter of 1997, the trials on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity of the seventy-two top-ranking Derg officials, including Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had fled to Zimbabwe shortly before the fall of Addis Ababa to the EPRDF, were still pending. As for the majority of those detained in relation to their suspected role during the Derg dictatorship, it was only in the first quarter of 1997 that the Special Prosecutor's Office announced their charging with criminal offences. The Office charged a total number of 5,198 people, of whom 2,246 were already in detention, while 2,952 were charged in absentia. The vast majority of the defendants were charged with genocide and war crimes, and faced alternative charges of having committed aggravated homicide and wilful injury. All charges were based on the Ethiopian penal code of 1957. New additional trials of Derg era defendants opened before the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa during March 1997. However, the serious crisis in the Ethiopian judiciary has left federal courts with a backlog of thousands of "ordinary cases." The new court proceedings were expected to run into similar delays that marked the first Derg-Trial. On the other hand, trials before regional high courts had not yet started as of late November 1997. Many of the defendants were in pre-trial detention for almost six years before they were brought to court.

In the face of an all-dominant party and powerful executive branch, victims of abuses had no quarters to turn to for protection and redress. The restructuring of the judiciary, which had already suffered sweeping political purges in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Derg, has led to further pressure on its meager capacities, resulting in its near paralysis. Despite significant government efforts to reform the judiciary and ease its bottlenecks, judges who try to uphold the rule of law are frequently defeated by local officials who refuse to comply. The credibility of the new police force, which was meant to be established under civilian control, and made accountable before the law, suffered serious setbacks following the role of the police in some troubling political cases, particularly the killing in May 1997 of Assefa Maru.

The Council of Peoples' Representatives initiated preparations in 1996 for the establishment of a human rights commission and ombudsman institution to fill in some of the gaps in the rights protection regime. By the end of 1997, concrete steps in that direction had as yet to be taken.

Ethiopian government officials frequently made statements that equated the expression of human rights concerns by representatives of the international community to forms of interference in the internal affairs of the country. In any case, Ethiopia's partners in the international community gave mixed signals. They considered the country a model of economic reforms, and as a strategic ally for the stabilization of the Horn of Africa region and the diplomatic and military containment of perceived threats from the Islamist government of neighboring Sudan. This led to firm commitments of aid, and less resolve as to the conditioning of that aid on human rights improvements and sound governance benchmarks. Five years into this strategic alliance, concerned representativesof the international community still had no focal point to bring their queries about abuses to, and their appeals were rarely answered.

While the level of the Ethiopian government's political commitment to the enforcement of human rights standards was demonstrably high, its actual practices, as summarized above, significantly deviated from the stated principles. Ethiopian officials repeatedly complained that their practices were often unfairly compared to the dictatorial excesses of the Derg. Instead, this report, the outcome of two field missions to Ethiopia in June/July 1996 and July/August 1997, examines the human rights record of Ethiopia under the EPRDF, and holds the current government accountable to standards it had introduced to guide the nation under its stewardship.