(London) – The Ethiopian government should end its widening crackdown against opposition politicians and dissidents, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past week, three well-known critics of the government – actor Debebe Eshetu, journalist Eskinder Nega, and opposition party leader Andualem Aragie – were arrested in Addis Ababa. Three other opposition party members were also detained.
Security forces arrested Eskinder, who is well-known in Ethiopia for his critical commentary, on the afternoon of September 14, while picking up his child from school. Andualem, vice chairman of the opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) and executive committee member of Medrek, the largest opposition coalition, was arrested around the same time on his way to the UDJ offices. On September 8, the government also arrested the popular actor Eshetu for his alleged involvement in Ginbot 7, a banned opposition group.
“The recent spate of arrests points to a broadening crackdown against dissent by the Ethiopian authorities,” said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The detention of Debebe Eshetu, Eskinder Nega, and Andualem Aragie is just the latest reminder that it is very dangerous to criticize the government in Ethiopia.”
Government spokesperson Shimelis Kemal told Human Rights Watch that the six people are being investigated under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 as a result of their alleged links with Ginbot 7 and alleged involvement in a terrorist plot.
All six are being held at the infamous Federal Police Crime Investigation Department, known as Maekelawi prison, in Addis Ababa, where torture is frequent. It is not known whether independent domestic and international organizations have access to Maekelawi prison, heightening concerns for their safety, Human Rights Watch said.
Debebe, Eskinder, and Andualem should be immediately released unless there is a credible basis for promptly charging them. The government crackdown appears to coincide with an expanded use of Ethiopia’s abusive anti-terrorism law, Human Rights Watch said. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation contains an overbroad and vague definition of terrorist acts and makes the publication of statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” punishable by imprisonment for 10 to 20 years. The government is exploiting the law’s overly broad language to accuse peaceful critics, journalists, and political opponents of encouraging terrorism.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, suspects can be held in custody for up to four months without charge. This is contrary to the Ethiopian constitution, which provides that suspects in detention should be charged or released within 48 hours, and violates international due process standards. Human Rights Watch has long called for the anti-terrorism law to be amended to bring it into line with Ethiopia’s international obligations.
The arrests of Eskinder and Andualem may be related to their criticism of the anti-terrorism law, Human Rights Watch said. Both recently questioned the terrorism charges against other critics of the government. Eskinder published an article last week on the internet questioning the plausibility of journalists as terror suspects and denouncing Debebe’s arrest on terror charges. Andualem has spoken out at recent opposition party press conferences about terrorist charges against opposition parties.
“Criticizing the anti-terror law is not a crime, nor is commenting on the arrests of government critics,” said Peligal. “The Ethiopian government appears to be locking up anyone who speaks up for basic rights and greater freedom.”
Three other opposition party members – two active members of UDJ and the general secretary of the Ethiopian National Democratic Party – were also detained on September 14, according to opposition activists. The arrests come after another opposition party member, Zerihun Gebre-Egzabiher of the Ethiopian National Democratic Party, and at least four journalists, two Ethiopian and two Swedish, were charged under the anti-terrorism law. The journalists have been held without charge for two months in Maekelawi and remain in detention.
Two leaders of the ethnic Oromo political opposition who were accused of having links with the banned insurgent group, the Oromo Liberation Front (ONLF), were arrested on terrorism charges in August.
Many of those currently detained or charged under the anti-terrorism law had previously been arrested and charged with treason following the contested 2005 elections.
“Ethiopia’s international donors campaigned for the release of Debebe Eshetu, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, and 129 other members of the opposition and civil society when they were detained in 2005,” said Peligal. “It’s time for the US, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to find their voices once again.”
Eskinder and Andualem were among the 129 opposition political leaders, journalists, and human rights activists arrested and charged with treason and other crimes in late 2005, following the contested May 2005 national elections. They were both subsequently released after a presidential pardon.
Since his release Eskinder has faced ongoing harassment, surveillance, and intimidation.The authorities denied him a license to practice journalism.
The former leader of UDJ, Birtukan Midekssa, who was also among those arrested in 2005, was re-arrested in 2008 and held for almost two years, including for prolonged periods of solitary confinement. United Nations experts determined that her detention was arbitrary, in violation of international law. She was released in October 2010.