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Human Rights Developments
The Ethiopian government, led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), continued to implement an ambitious program of political and economic reforms with significant donor support. Ethnically-based federal regions assumed executive, legislative, and judicial powers provided for under the 1994 constitution. The EPRDF maintained strict control over this process through parties affiliated to it which dominated regional governments. A handful of opposition parties, notably the All Amhara People Organization (AAPO) and the Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia (CAFPD), preserved a precarious presence in the capital Addis Ababa, following years of relentless government curtailment of their activities, particularly in the countryside. Tensions persisted between the government and ethnic fronts which withdrew from earlier alliances with the EPRDF over their insistence that constitutionally guaranteed self-determination rights be immediately exercised in their regions. Sporadic clashes occurred in Oromia and Somali regional states between government troops and fighters from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) respectively. Tension remained high along the borders with Somalia where the government responded to incursions by the fundamentalist Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (Islamic Unity) by striking at its strongholds across the border and by backing armed factions in Somalia opposed to Al-Ittihad.

Wide-scale human rights violations occurred in the context of the government’s suppression of armed insurgency and political dissent. The military and rural militia associated with parties affiliated to the EPRDF arrested thousands for months without charge or trial on account of their suspected support of armed insurgencies. Opposition activists, editors of the private press, and leaders of labor organizations who continued to challenge the EPRDF’s monopolization of political space were systematically targeted through harassment and repeated detentions. Overcrowding, poor hygiene, and inadequate food compounded the plight of detainees. However, the government granted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) increasing access to places of detention in 1997 and 1998, and cooperated with its efforts to assist inmates. The humanitarian agency reported visiting by the end of 1997 some 10,980 people held in connection with the 1991 ouster of the former regime or for security reasons, and registering 5,660 newdetainees.

The close political and strategic alliance between Ethiopia and Eritrea collapsed in early May when a minor border dispute flared up into brief violent confrontations. Hundreds were killed on both sides, mainly civilians. The fighting displaced thousands of villagers on both sides of the border. Fighting ceased in mid-June following intense mediation efforts, but a massive military buildup by both states continued as a bitter propaganda war and the pursuit of escalation by extremists on both sides reduced the chances of a negotiated settlement.

Both sides traded accusations of ill-treatment of their citizens whom the conflict had found on the wrong side of the border. Eritrea denied deliberately expelling Ethiopians and said its policy would remain one of welcoming and protecting Ethiopians willing to stay, but a September 26 statement by the Eritrean foreign ministry put the number of Ethiopians who had “voluntarily returned” to their country at 6,600.

Compelling evidence pointed to a deliberate campaign by the Ethiopian authorities to expel Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin to Eritrea. By late October, an estimated thirty thousand, most of them Ethiopian citizens who had not taken up Eritrean nationality in the aftermath of Eritrea’s 1991 secession from Ethiopia, were deported after experiencing systematic denial of their human rights. The campaign swiftly degenerated from selective targeting to indiscriminate deportations. A government “policy” statement on June 11 said the “550,000 Eritreans residing in Ethiopia” could continue to live and work peacefully there. However, as a “precautionary measure,” the statement ordered members of Eritrean political and community organizations to leave the country on account of their suspected support of the Eritrean war effort, and gave a mandatory leave of absence of one month to Eritreans occupying “sensitive” jobs. While authorities initially suggested an option of voluntary departure for the targeted categories, they later began rounding up people on the sole basis of their being Eritrean or of Eritrean extraction, and apparently without making an effort to distinguish between the two categories. Not all who fell in the dragnet were deported. Those of military age were sent to detention camps where an unknown number remained held by late October without charge or trial. Others were trucked, after brief detentions, to remote border posts and ordered to cross into Eritrea on foot. Those detained and expelled included many elderly retired citizens of Ethiopia, mainly businessmen who had lived most of their lives and raised their children in other provinces of Ethiopia while Eritrea fought for its independence. The government ordered the freezing of their assets and revoked their business licenses, stripping them and their families of their livelihood. Many families were separated during the deportations from underage children who were not allowed to leave with them, or, in a few cases, from children who were deported unaccompanied.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in an interview with Radio Ethiopia on July 9 said the deportees were “foreigners,” adding that “. . . any foreign national, whether Eritrean or Japanese etc. . . . lives in Ethiopia because of the goodwill of the Ethiopian government. If we say ‘Go, because we don’t like the color of your eyes,’ they have to leave.” The issue was, however, more complex than the prime minister’s assertion suggested. For the forty years preceding Eritrean independence in 1991 both countries were part of the same internationally recognized state. Strong cultural, religious, and linguistic affinities existed between the two people, and intermarriages were common. The Ethiopian constitution, in its Article 6, grants citizenship by birth to any person with one or both Ethiopian parents. Many Eritreans had retained their Ethiopian nationality when Eritrea became independent, and Ethiopia did not take any legal measure to rescind their citizenship then. As a consequence, the Ethiopian government had no legal basis to consider many of the deportees as aliens. The roundup, detention, and the ill-treatment of which the deportees, whether nationals or aliens, were the victims violated rights of nondiscrimination and freedom of movement that the Ethiopian constitution guaranteed. The deportations and accompanying violations of a range of rights of the deportees also violated Ethiopia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties it has ratified and indeed incorporated into the law of the land.

The harassment and imprisonment on political grounds of opposition leaders continued. Professor Asrat Woldeyes, the president of the opposition All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO) who was imprisoned in 1994, was hospitalized in January for treatment for diabetes and other health complications; he was nearly seventy, and also suffered heart problems. The government adamantly refused to bend to domestic and international appeals, including from Human Rights Watch, for his release. By late October his condition had improved, but he remained under guard in his hospital room. He was serving consecutive prison sentences of two and three years in Addis Ababa central prison after convictions for “inciting armed rebellion.” He credibly complained that he did not receive fair trials, but his appeals were rejected. He and another twenty-two AAPO leaders faced another trial which began in 1995 on new charges of “armed rebellion.” The court refused to examine claims by several codefendants that their confessions implicating the group were obtained under torture. Aberra Yemane Ab, an activist jailed since December 1993 when he returned to Addis Ababa from his U.S. exile to participate in a conference on peace and reconciliation, was allowed in late September only a few minutes’ encounter with a son he hadn’t seen since he was incarcerated. The government denied the son further visits on the grounds that he, a holder of a U.S. passport, was a foreigner.

Security forces on September 17 surrounded the headquarters of the elected Ethiopian Teachers’ Association in Addis Ababa, and ordered ETA’s officials to hand the premises over to a government-sponsored “teachers’ association.” ETA’s executive committee members present at the time, Shimeles Zewdi, Abate Angore, and Aweke Mulugeta, were detained without a court order and were only released on October 15. The latter two were briefly detained following a similar raid on ETA’s compound on August 13. The premises had survived as a symbol of ETA’s autonomy, and were a nagging reminder of the association’s persistent rejection of ethnic federalism policies, particularly when applied in the field of education. Previous attacks on the association since its conflict with the government started in 1992 included the closure of its regional and local offices, the freezing of its accounts, and the repeated detention of its officials. In May 1996, the association’s president Dr. Taye Woldesemayat was arrested and charged, together with five others, with “armed conspiracy.” Exactly a year later, Assefa Maru, his replacement as head of ETA and a human rights advocate,was gunned down by the police who accused him after the fact of participating in an armed insurgency.

Dr. Taye Woldesemayat was subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in Addis Ababa central prison where he was transferred after his arrest and remained. The presiding judge denied bail, and when the teachers’ leader repeatedly complained that he was being harassed by his guards, the judge failed to act decisively to restrain them. The guards in February placed Woldesemayat in a death-row cell known as the “darkness cell.” When he again complained about the conditions of his detention in a July 28 hearing, the presiding judge, holding him in contempt, ordered him put in chains for twenty-four hours a day until a hearing scheduled for September 29. The constant stress from these conditions and daily verbal abuse by his guards reportedly exacted a heavy psychological and physical toll on Woldesemayat.

Authorities in March arrested thirty-four individuals and charged them with armed conspiracy with the Oromo Liberation Front. They joined in prison an earlier group of thirty-one prominent members of the Oromo community who were arrested in October and November 1997 and faced similar charges, punishable by from five years’ imprisonment to death. The government claimed that some of the sixty-five Oromos were OLF fighters and accused the others of membership in OLF “support groups.” The “groups” in question included the newly founded Human Rights League; the Oromo Relief Association dissolved by the government in 1995; the newspaper Urji , which ceased publishing after the arrest of key journalists; an Oromo cultural revival association; and a medical clinic catering for the Oromo community in Addis Ababa. Typically, the trial started with a round of adjournments which the government attributed to lack of judges.

Personnel shortages and meager resources indeed led to severe delays in the courts and slowed down the restructuring of the judiciary in line with the federal system. With a backlog of thousands of cases by late 1998 in Addis Ababa alone, and few judges to clear it, one year adjournments became routine in the court system, with suspects and defendants having to spend long months in pretrial detention. The legal rights of prisoners to speedy and fair trials thus remained seriously compromised. Prisoners facing trial on political and security charges credibly claimed that the government was using the near paralysis of the justice system to neutralize them and their parties, associations, and newspapers for years at a time without appearing to be using an iron fist. Long term detention before even coming to trial faced some prisoners held solely for the nonviolent exercise of their freedom of expression and association. Detention for indefinite periods also applied to those accused of serious crimes and violence with political dimensions. A case in point of the latter was the internationally supported trial of officials of the previous Derg regime for crimes against humanity, an initiative once lauded as a major strike against impunity but which was seriously tarnished by its unconscionably slow pace. On September 10, the Office of the Special Prosecutor announced the release of thirty-one defendants who had been in pretrial detention for seven years for lack of evidence.

Repression against the independent press escalated to unprecedented levels in the last quarter of 1997 and in 1998. There were seventeen detained journalists in Ethiopia in late October. The brief but often repeated detentions of journalists observed in most of 1997 gave way to the crippling practice of wholesale arrests of key members of the editorial and managerial staff of vocal publications, a tactic which amounted to the virtual banning of the targeted publications. Five journalists from the pro-Oromo weekly Urji remained in detention since their arrest in the last quarter of 1997, including the editor-in-chief and his deputy and the reporter Garoma Bekele, who at the time was also secretary of the newly founded Human Rights League. Together with other Oromo leaders rounded up during that period, they faced charges of armed conspiracy with the OLF: prosecutors accused Urji of being an organ of the OLF. The crackdown came shortly after an early October article in which the newspaper challenged the official version of the killing of three Oromo activists in Addis Ababa which the government claimed had occurred during a shootout. The newspaper cited eyewitnesses who claimed the three were killed without warning. Urji ceased publishing following the onslaught. The private weekly Tobia suffered a similar fate when four editors were arrested on January 16, 1998 following the paper’s publication of a leaked internal U.N. memorandum recommending security precautions to its staff. Hours after their arrest, the newspaper’s offices were burned to the ground, its equipment, archive, and database totally destroyed. The newspaper ceased publishing but reappeared after the release of its journalists in July and August. Despite repeated appeals by media watchdogs for an investigation of the fire, its origin remained undetermined by late October. On July 13, Shimelis Kamal, Berhane Negash, and Teferi Mokennen of Nishan , an independent Amharic weekly newspaper which at the time had published just eight issues, were arrested for an article criticizing the government’s deportation of Eritreans. Freed a day later, they were immediately rearrested for issuing a press release criticizing their arrest and detained without a court order for a month. In the interim, police ignored two orders issued by a judge to either charge or release them immediately. The crackdown succeeded in eroding the commitment of the sole financial backer of Nishan: the paper ceased publishing when he withdrew his support. For denouncing in a press release in February the government’s muzzling of the independent press, Kiffle Mulate, editor of Ethio-Time and national coordinator of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, was himself detained for six months. Repeated arrests had forced the leaders of that association and some twenty other journalists into exile.




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Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


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