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(Nairobi) - Ethiopia's draft counterterrorism law could punish political speech and peaceful protest as terrorist acts and encourage unfair trials if enacted, Human Rights Watch said today. The government and members of parliament should amend the draft law, which may otherwise be imminently passed as-is by parliament, to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch's detailed analysis of the draft Anti-Terrorism Proclamation concludes that the bill violates fundamental freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, and strips defendants of important due-process protections. As drafted, the law could provide a new and potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy, Human Rights Watch said.

"Ethiopia may well need a fair and effective law to combat terrorism, but this is not it," said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch. "As drafted, this law could encourage serious abuses against political protesters and provide legal cover for repression of free speech and due-process rights."

The measure ignores well-established standards embedded in both international law and Ethiopia's own law, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law's overly broad definition of terrorist acts could be used to prosecute peaceful political protesters and would in some circumstances impose lengthy prison terms and even the death penalty as a punishment for damaging property or disrupting public services.

Even those who merely express support for a peaceful political protest could be deemed terrorists under the law, as well as any member of the group who engaged in the protest. The law would even eliminate protections against the use of confessions obtained after torture.

Among the draft counterterrorism law's most worrying provisions are:

  • The definition of terrorist acts, which could be used to prosecute a very wide range of conduct - far beyond the limits of what can reasonably be considered terrorist activity. Besides violent acts and kidnapping, an act that "causes serious damage to property" or "disruption or interference of a public service" may be deemed terrorist under the law if carried out for a specified purpose. This definition is so broad that a nonviolent political protest that disrupts traffic might be labeled a "terrorist act." As the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism has explained, the concept of terrorism should be limited to acts committed with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages, and not property crimes.
  • The expansion of police powers to search, arrest, and restrict movement of individuals and destroy property without judicial oversight, in many cases based solely on the belief that terrorist activity "will be" committed. The law also provides for "terrorist suspects" to be held for up to four months without charge.
  • The approval of using hearsay or "indirect evidences" in court without any limitation. Official intelligence reports would also be admissible, even if they do not disclose their source or how their information was gathered. By making intelligence reports admissible in this way, the law effectively would allow evidence obtained under torture - if defense counsel could not ascertain the methods by which intelligence was collected, they would not be able to show that it was collected in an abusive way.
  • The criminalization of speech "encouraging," "advancing," or "in support" of terrorist acts even if the speech is not directly inciting acts of terrorism. The law would even criminalize providing "moral support" to someone who is alleged to have engaged in a terrorist act. Coupled with the extremely broad definition of terrorist acts, this could result in a conviction for encouraging or giving moral support to participants in a nonviolent political protest that disrupts traffic or causes minor property damage.
  • The approval of imposing the death penalty for certain offenses that cannot be considered among the "most serious crimes," as required by international law. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irrevocable.

Human Rights Watch urged the Ethiopian government to seek input from human rights experts and to ensure that civil society and the public are given a fair opportunity to review and comment on any draft counterterrorism legislation.

"If the government really wants to produce a solid piece of legislation that can help combat terrorism, then it should immediately seek input from civil society and international experts, and amend the law's worst provisions," Mariner said.

Several bombings and grenade attacks in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and elsewhere have claimed Ethiopian civilian lives over the years, and the Ethiopian government has alleged that these attacks were carried out by armed opposition groups.

Most recently, in October 2008, the Ethiopian trade mission in Hargeisa, Somaliland, was one of the targets of multiple suicide bombings that killed at least 20 people; the attacks were blamed on al-Shabaab, a Somali armed group with alleged links to al-Qaeda.

Although Ethiopia has legitimate security concerns over terrorism, Human Rights Watch said that Ethiopia's increasing repression of political opposition and independent civil society since the controversial 2005 elections, when scores of individuals protesting the election results were killed and injured by security forces, raises special concerns.

Since 2005, government efforts to suppress criticism have increased, and Ethiopian officials consistently deny well-documented reports of systematic killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture by members of the military and police forces in various regions of the country.

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