As parliamentary elections approach, the Ethiopian authorities have established new institutions that suppress speech and political activity in the country's most populous region, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. At the same time, officials have continued to detain and harass perceived political opponents.
The 44-page report, "Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia's Oromia Region," documents how regional authorities and security forces have used exaggerated concerns about armed insurgency and "terrorism" to justify the torture, imprisonment and sustained harassment of their critics and even ordinary citizens in the central region of Oromia. The ethnic-based party that controls the region, the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization, holds the largest share of parliamentary seats within the four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991.
Human Rights Watch said that election observers reporting on the May 15 parliamentary vote must acknowledge the extent to which these pervasive abuses have been used to prevent the emergence of dissenting voices and to punish those who speak out critically against government policies.
"The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "But in the run-up to the elections, the authorities have intensified the repression they have used to keep themselves in power for 13 years."
In recent months, regional authorities in Oromia have imposed new local institutions that restrict the large rural population's most basic freedoms. For more than a decade, the region's ruling Oromo Democratic Peoples' Organization has sought to solidify its grip on power by punishing dissenters and intimidating others into silence. So far, these abuses have been largely ignored by the international community.
The Oromo Democratic Peoples' Organization (OPDO) has enjoyed a position of unchallenged dominance in Oromia's governance since 1991, following the overthrow of the military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. The following year, the Oromo Democratic Peoples' Organization's only rival for political control of Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front, withdrew from the political process after its candidates and supporters were harassed and intimidated in the run up to parliamentary elections.
Since then, the Oromo Liberation Front has waged an ineffectual armed struggle that has provided the authorities with a rationalization for repression. Throughout this period, Oromo's ruling party has routinely accused its critics and opponents of involvement with the rebel group to justify subjecting them to extreme abuse and harassment.
In March, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed dozens of people in Oromia who had been arbitrarily detained, often repeatedly, when officials accused them of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front. In each of those cases, despite the inability of Ethiopian government authorities to produce any evidence to support their allegations, the detainees were held for weeks or months. None of the former detainees interviewed had ever been tried for any offense connected to their arrest or confronted with any evidence that they had committed any crime. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which security officials had arrested children as young as 11 and accused them of plotting armed insurrection.
Many of the people detained on suspicion of involvement in the Oromo Liberation Front were severely beaten while in detention, and some were subjected to brutal methods of torture. Several people detained last year described being beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Others recounted how they were stripped naked and made to stand with partially full bottles of water tied to their testicles.
"They told me that I had gone to school not for education but to do politics," said a 19- year-old Oromo woman detained in August by police in Agaro. "They forced me to take off my clothes and I was naked except for my underwear when they started kicking me....They put a pistol in my mouth and said that they would kill me."
Many former detainees said their ordeals did not end when they were released from detention. In many cases, security personnel subjected them to continuing harassment severe enough to destroy their livelihoods. After several former detainees were released without charge, their businesses failed as clients began to avoid them because police harassed those who patronized stores owned by the former detainees.
In the past six months, regional authorities have taken even greater efforts to stifle dissent in Oromia's countryside, where more than 85 percent of the population lives. Beginning late last year, Oromia's regional government began imposing an entirely new set of quasi-governmental community "development" organizations called gott and garee, in thousands of rural communities. While government officials claim that these institutions exist to facilitate development work, they are actually being used to monitor and control the speech, movement and personal associations of rural households in violation of fundamental rights. With elections approaching, these institutions have also used monetary sanctions to enforce attendance at pro-ruling party political rallies thinly disguised as "community meetings."
"Far from being isolated incidents, the patterns of human rights abuse that prevail in Oromia call into question the Ethiopian government's professed commitment to human rights," Takirambudde said.
In response to repeated demonstrations by students protesting government policies, regional and local authorities have gone to great lengths to monitor and suppress criticism in Oromia's schools. Students said that they could not express themselves freely in the classroom for fear of being suspended, expelled or even imprisoned. Several teachers confirmed that such fears were well-founded, describing how school administrators pressured them into gathering and reporting information about their students' political leanings.
People who have suffered abuse at the hands of government officials because of their critical opinions said that they now avoid speaking in public about the issues facing their communities. The chilling effect of these abuses is most pronounced in Oromia's countryside, where dozens of farmers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the efforts of the garee to monitor their opinions have caused them to avoid any discussion that might be seen as political.
"I used to speak at meetings about things that I thought were wrong. But now I never do this," one elderly man told Human Rights Watch. "They are too suspicious of anyone whose ideas are not the same as theirs."
Human Rights Watch called upon the Ethiopian government to take immediate action to end these deeply entrenched patterns of human rights violations and to hold responsible security and government officials accountable for their role in carrying them out. International donors should employ their considerable leverage to press the country's government into taking prompt and meaningful action in this regard.
With elections approaching on May 15, Human Rights Watch also urged international election observers to acknowledge the extent to which these abuses have restricted the possibility for meaningful political debate in the country's most populous region.
Accounts from the Human Rights Watch report, "Suppressing Dissent"
The Director asked me to check after the student's exercise books, and to see what they write on their desks. He is mainly looking for this "OLF"....Some of my students draw the OLF name on their exercise books. If I do not report this and someone else sees they may say that I encourage them to do this and I may go to prison. So I have to follow them. I have reported students to the director. I worry very much about this. [The students] should have the right to do what they want on their exercise books. I am being made to oppress my own students...In December, a fourth-grade student was expelled for one year after his teacher reported her for making a stamp with the letters "OLF"...Even we, when we are teaching, if we misspeak some words and accidentally say something that seems anti-government without meaning to, we can get into trouble. So we have to watch our mouths. Students also report to the administration what their teachers say.
- A teacher from Dembi Dollo in Oromo state, describing the pressure he is under to monitor his students for subversive speech and activity.
[Since the garee were created] our people do not speak. They have become mute because they are afraid. If two or three people are standing they avoid going to speak with them because those people may listen to what you say and give it a different meaning. If they hate someone they say, "You are an OLF." If you say something they don't like, they say the OLF is behind you and telling you what to do....When this thing started we cooperated because we thought it was actually for development, but things were better before....Since the garee came you cannot even have a visitor in your home without being asked to report on him.
- An Oromo man describing the heightened level of repression and surveillance his community has experienced since the garee institutions were introduced in his rural community in September.