(Nairobi) - The Ethiopian government is waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists ahead of the May 2010 elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. On May 23, 2010, Ethiopians will vote in the first parliamentary elections in Ethiopia since 2005, when the post-election period was marred by controversy and bloodshed.
The 59-page report, "‘One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure': Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia," documents the myriad ways in which the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has systematically punished opposition supporters. Since the 2005 polls, the party has used its near-total control of local and district administrations to undermine opponents' livelihoods through withholding services such as agricultural inputs, micro-credit, and job opportunities. The report also documents how recently enacted laws severely restrict the activities of civil society and the media.
"Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The ruling party and the state are becoming one, and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence."
Government repression has caused many civil society activists and journalists to flee the country in recent months. The most prominent independent newspaper was closed in December 2009 and the government jammed Voice of America radio broadcasts last month. Ethiopians are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government's policies - whether through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views - without fear of reprisal. In 2008, the government arbitrarily imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa, president of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party.
Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts for approximately one-third of all government expenditures. The country's principal foreign donors - the World Bank, United States, United Kingdom, and European Union - have been very timid in their criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said.
For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people during 15 weeks of research in Ethiopia, including farmers, teachers, civil servants, activists, opposition, and government officials, as well as foreign diplomats and aid officials in the capital, Addis Ababa, and in three other regions.
Since the April 2008 local elections in which the EPRDF won over 99.9 percent of the vote, the ruling party has consolidated its control over village and district administrations and ruled with an iron grip. In the districts visited by Human Rights Watch, residents told how every village was organized into cells and local government officials, and militia monitored households for signs of dissent. Local administrations withheld government services to punish those who criticized the government or did not support the ruling party.
Local government officials have considerable influence over the livelihoods of villagers: they are responsible for selecting and supervising participation in food-for-work programs, allocations of seeds and fertilizer, micro-credit loans, and for providing letters of reference for jobs, educational opportunities, and training. Opposition parties claim that their memberships have been decimated because people have no option but to join the ruling party to protect their jobs and feed their families.
The government has also put pressure on all state employees - and especially teachers - to join the ruling party, and selectively punished critical voices. It has used the draconian Charities and Societies Proclamation as well as the Anti-Terrorism law to intimidate civil society activists and journalists who have tried to report on state repression.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Ethiopian government to take urgent steps to improve the electoral environment by immediately releasing all political prisoners, including Birtukan. Human Rights Watch also calls on the government to publicly order all officials and EPRDF members to cease attacks and threats against members of the political opposition, civil society, and the media; and permit independent efforts, including by international electoral observers, to investigate and publicly report on abuses.
The European Union and the African Union are the only institutions considering sending international election observers to monitor the May elections. Restrictions in the Charities and Societies Proclamation make independent election monitoring by Ethiopian organizations practically impossible. Human Rights Watch called on all international observers to take into account the pre-election repression when assessing the freedom and fairness of the polls.
"Ethiopia's foreign backers should break their silence and condemn the climate of fear in Ethiopia," said Gagnon. "Donors should use their considerable financial leverage to press for an end to the harassment of the opposition and to oppressive laws on activists and the media."
Selected Accounts from the Report
"You have to understand that at the grassroots level, everything is organized according to the EPRDF ideology, everything is organized and controlled by cells; if you are opposition you are excluded [from village life]."
- Teacher, Amhara region
"I am a member of the EPRDF, but I do support the opposition party. Being a member does not mean anything. I am a member of EPRDF because I need relief assistance.... The list of receipts - the proof that I am paying my dues to the party - are required to get relief assistance. I am paying because I do not want to be suppressed or ignored."
- Ruling party member, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region
"There is a significant element of self-censorship, there are many stories we cannot write, many things we cannot say. We are not told the red lines, we have to guess. Their interpretation of terrorism [in the anti-terrorism law] is so broad that it is dangerous for us. For example, if they label a particular political party a terrorist organization then we cannot write about them.... Newspapers are not allowed to do polling or predict anything before the National Electoral Board has announced it."
- Journalist, Addis Ababa