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Human Rights Developments

The ruling Ethiopian People=s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) marked in mid-1996 the fifth anniversary of the defeat of the former government, the Derg, and of its taking power after almost a decade of a devastating civil war. A transitional period culminated in the May 1995 parliamentary elections and the proclamation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia the following August. The EPRDF, a coalition of ethnically-based movements that fought the Derg dominated by the Tigray People=s Liberation Front (TPLF), gained control of the legislative and executive bodies of the state while its military wing assumed the responsibilities of national defense and policing. This dominant role of the EPRDF, which was established in the transitional period, continued in the elected parliament and the new federal government.

A fundamental tenet of the public platform of the ruling party during the transitional government and subsequently was that the liberalization of the economy and the introduction of political pluralism would help bring about economic prosperity and political stability in the war-torn and poverty-ridden country. While the economy showed positive responses to the government=s internationally-backed restructuring programs, genuine political pluralism and participation remained to be achieved and the EPRDF=s commitment to this was increasingly called into question. The EPRDF had in effect sponsored sixteen parties, which it called People=s Democratic Organizations, each based on the dominant ethnic groups in the various regions. This strategy ensured a monopoly of power by the EPRDF and its allied or satellite parties in both regional and federal assemblies following a series of elections from 1992 to 1995 that major opposition groups boycotted.

It also underscored the predominant role that ethnicity came to occupy in contemporary Ethiopian politics and society. The new constitution of the federal republic promoted ethnic federalism and gave the nations of Ethiopia the right of self-determination including secession, although the new government acted to suppress low-level insurgencies in a number of regions that were waged in the name of self-determination. The federal system fueled strong opposition to the EPRDF in urban elite circles, such as the All Amhara People=s Organization (AAPO), which argued for a restoration of the traditional form of centralized power. The EPRDF claimed for its part that only the constitutional guarantees of equality through ethnic federalism could allay the anxieties of minority groups that had suffered from decades of repression and exploitation under the centralized power structures of imperial and later on military-ruled Ethiopia. However, the commitment to regional autonomy, which translated into formal moves towards the devolution of powers to the regions, was contradicted by the center=s control of the political process at the regional level through the network of regional parties allied to the EPRDF.

The new government demobilized thousands of EPRDF fighters, mostly from the TPLF, and said it had achieved the proportional recruitment of soldiers from other groups as a step toward the creation of a representative and apolitical army. Security in rural areas, where more than 85 percent of the population lived on subsistence agriculture and pastoral activities, remained in the hands of local militia who acted in tandem with military detachments but ostensibly under local political control. These, according to government officials, did not come under the direct chain of command of the army, which however assisted in their training and arming. Testimonies of victims of abuse by rural security personnel persistently pointed to the role of security committees, consisting of local officials, political cadres of the EPRDF and its affiliates and army officers, in control of these Apeasant militias.@ The committee system made the militia an integral part of the national political structure and placed them under the control of the central government through the ruling party apparatus. They provided the interface between local authorities, the militia, the army, and the ruling party, in practice subordinating local security structures to the federal authorities.

The federal government maintained its formal commitment to the respect of the rule of law and international human rights standards. However, as the trial of the Derg officials for crimes against humanity stalled, political killings, torture and arbitrary detention were reported in the context of civil strife, and the government continued to show intolerance toward the manifestations of an increasingly dynamic, independent-minded civil society.

The trial of seventy-three top-ranking officials of the Derg, charged with committing genocide and war crimes, progressed at a slow pace, with-twenty six of the defendants, including Colonel Mengistu, tried in absentia. Meanwhile, authorities continued to hold an estimated 1,700 prisoners without charges for the fifth consecutive year for their alleged crimes under the Derg, a situation which the prime minister admitted was Ano longer justifiable.@ Those not charged were not allowed access to their dossiers and there was no public information on the documentation recovered from the Derg period which provided the basis for prosecutions.

The army waged counterinsurgency operations against the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia and countered sporadic attacks by Al-Ithad Al-Islami (Islamic Unity) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front in Somali Region and by the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front in Afar Region.

Local militiamen carried out hundreds of arrests without warrant of people suspected of collaborating with insurgent groups, often in sweeps through rural communities in which virtually all residents were treated as suspects. Many of these security detainees were held for weeks or months in temporary rural camps before being released or turned over to regional authorities. Only after transfer to regional civil or military authorities were such detentions normally acknowledged, although prolonged detention without charge or trial was also widely reported in ad hoc detention centers in administrative buildings, commandeered schools, or police stations under the authority of regional governments. Although in recent years large numbers of suspected members of violent opposition groups were detained in army camps, most such camps were believed to have been closed, although dozens of security detainees were reported held in the army camp at Hegere Mariam as recently as mid-1996. Of the 20,000 detainees officially described as demobilized OLF fighters who were held at the army=s camps at Hurso, Dedessa, Agarfa, and Zeway between 1992 and 1995, all but ninety-three were reportedly released. The ninety-three were transferred to civilian prisons, pending trial.

Despite the federal constitution=s guarantees of due process, and its barring of the torture or ill-treatment of prisonersCin Articles 18, 19, 20 and 21CHuman Rights Watch/Africa documented a number of cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of security detainees. Most involved individuals who had been detained by local militia and political cadre. These individuals described having been tortured in brutal field interrogations at the time of their detentions, or punished in repeated beatings in temporary rural detention camps by local authorities, where they also described being deprived of sleep and of food. We interviewed such former detainees who showed injuries consistent with their accounts of having been flogged, burnt with cigarettes, and having been cut with knives and bayonets by their captors. In what appeared to be a routine form of restraint, former detainees described having had their elbows tied behind their backs with plastic cords or wire, leading in some cases observed both to scarring and to more severe and permanent disabilities. Most were released without having been subject to any formal detention procedure; treatment improved for the small minority who were transferred to a regional government detention facility or were seen by a judge or prosecutor.

The physical torture of rural prisoners according to these testimonies was systematic and prolonged and seemed a form of punishment as well as a means of pressing prisoners to provide information or to confess to collaboration with armed groups. Testimonies also revealed the wide use of threats against and the actual detention of family members, particularly mothers, wives, and daughters, to force fugitive suspects to turn themselves in for interrogation. In one case, the daughter of a suspected OLF activist was detained repeatedly with a view to forcing the father=s surrender: she was reportedly raped by the head of the local administration in her community following her short-term detention in early 1996. Her father, himself a torture victim, had fled the town.

Human Rights Watch/Africa interviewed former detainees from Oromia State=s Western Shewa, Borana, and Western Harerge zones who described torture or ill-treatment in rural detention camps and in some detention facilities under regional government or military control. Some former detainees who had been held during 1994 in Hegere Mariam military camp number three Con federal, rather than regional authorityC also described systematic ill-treatment, including being beaten and forced to do harsh physical exercise.

Appeals by relatives to higher regional police or prosecution authorities, according to testimonies, sometimes led to the release of prisoners detained without charge, but there seemed to be no effective channel for complaints and appeals for judicial review readily available to the majority of detainees, particularly in the regions remotest from the capital, Addis Ababa. Many allegations of abuse came from people in the capital who told Human Rights Watch/Africa they had fled local officials in the countryside where the rule of law was largely absent.

Although some of the individuals interviewed by Human Rights WatchCand by local human rights monitors, notably the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO)C made complaints to the courts and to executive authorities about their treatment, no official inquiries were known to have been made into reports of torture and ill-treatment in the past year. In a limited concession to mounting criticism, however, the government announced a series of dismissals and other disciplinary measures against officials implicated in unspecified human rights abuses.

Reports of abuses at the national level related to the federal government=s crackdown on the press, civic associations and trade unions in violations of rights that the federal constitution provide for. The constitution guarantees the rights of peaceful assembly and association and provides for the right to engage in unrestricted peaceful political activity. Sixty-three political parties were registered with the government as of August: fifty-six were regional while the rest were national parties. The government authorized a number of opposition parties and pressure groups to stage demonstrations in the center of the Addis Ababa and its representatives received and responded to letters of protests from marchers. However, in other instances the government used laws requiring permits and harassment tactics to restrict the rights of association and peaceful assembly. Opposition groups such as AAPO were the object of closures of their regional offices, harassment, detention, and suspicious killings of activists, and lack of meaningful access to the state-controlled broadcasting media. While the government allowed some civic groups to operate without interference, its regulatory agencies restricted the freedom of other associations. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with a mandate to promote human rights education and monitoring and civic education faced obstacles in their attempts to register with the Ministry of Justice and police actionCincluding arrests without warrantCthat harassed and intimidated their personnel.

On February 29, security officials closed down the Addis Ababa offices of the Oromo Relief Association (ORA), a leading indigenous relief and rehabilitation NGO. In the preceding months, the Oromia state government had ordered the search and closure of ORA=s offices and operations in the region one after the other, accusing it in the media of providing resources and political capital to the insurgent OLF and of blocking other NGOs from access to the region. ORA was, however, never given the opportunity to defend itself before a court of law. Officials detained senior workers from at least three of ORA=s regional offices for up to eight months in harsh conditions without charges or trial. The coordinator in Dire Dawa, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested in mid-February and his whereabouts remained unknown to his family until his release in late September.

The Constitution of Ethiopia guarantees in Article 29 the freedoms of thought, opinion, and expression as essential to the functioning of a democratic order. The government continued, however, to use the vague formulation of the 1992 press proclamation to reign in critical reporting and allowed opposition groups only limited access to the state-owned radio and television. By the end of the year six journalists of the private press were in prison.

The constitution and the 1993 labor proclamation provide for the right of workers to form and join unions and to bargain collectively. This notwithstanding, the government lashed back at the Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA) and the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), the two largest and best established labor organizations in the country, for raising concerns about the impact on their members of new national educational and economic policies, respectively. As the confrontation escalated, the government arrested many activists of ETA and CETU, closed most of ETA=s regional offices without a court order, and froze the bank accounts of both unions. Local officials harassed elected ETA officers in a number of regional branches and forced them to flee, leaving behind their families and their jobs as teachers. One survived an attempt at his life when he briefly returned to his home province on family business. Pro-government activists established parallel unions, apparently to validate government challenges to the legitimacy of the refractory ones.

The Right To Monitor

The government continued for the fourth year to deny the registration as an NGO of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), the only monitoring organization in the country, charging that it was politically motivated. EHRCO managed to function without government recognition, while its bank account remained blocked since April 1995 and security officials closely monitored visitors to its office.

During a three-week mission to Ethiopia in mid-1996 two Human Rights Watch/Africa researchers were able to discuss the human rights situation in the country in private meetings with groups from different sectors of civil society, interview former prisoners and relatives of victims of human rights abuse, and meet with the minister of justice and other senior officials. The government also authorized other international human rights organizations to send research missions to the country, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. It continued, however, to deny the country researcher of Amnesty International (AI) an entry visa to the country although another AI representative was permitted to observe sessions of the Derg trials in June.

The Role of the International Community

The United Nations

In response to complaints about the administrative decision to cancel the registration of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) and to close down its office, the Committee on Freedom Of Association of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) called upon the Ethiopian government in December 1995 to respect its obligations under the 1948 Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and the 1949 Convention on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, both of which Ethiopia had ratified. In a related development, the governing body of the ILO, responding to similar complaints, unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the reinstatement by Ethiopia of CETU. An agreement signed in 1993 between Ethiopia, Sudan and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees allowed the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of thousands of Ethiopian refugees to continue, in spite of worsening relations between the two countries.

European Union

During a January visit to Ethiopia, the German president linked aid and respect for human rights, saying that a donor country could at any time withdraw its help from a country whose policy undermined democracy. Coming days after the signature of a US$33 million dollar German aid agreement for the purchase of fertilizers, the statement did not contradict the continued good relations Ethiopian government enjoyed with bilateral and multilateral donors. In the same month, the Netherlands and Britain joined the World Bank in contributing towards the write-off of US$250 million of Ethiopia=s estimated $270 million commercial bank debt. In July it was announced that Ethiopia would receive thirty-nine million dollars in development from Germany.

In a resolution on human rights in Ethiopia passed in July, the European Parliament condemned the arrest in May 30 of Taye Woldesemayat, the chairman of the Ethiopian Teachers= Association. It urged the Ethiopian authorities to release him and two other prominent political prisoners and to guarantee freedom of expression and action to ETA. In its response, the Ethiopian government stated that it dealt with the three cases in full conformity with the law and dismissed the resolution as indicative of Alack of seriousness and purpose.@

Organization of African Unity

Ethiopia held the rotating presidency of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) for most of 1996. Following the July coup in Burundi, it joined Burundi=s neighbors and the OAU in imposing economic sanctions on that country to foster a quick return to civilian rule and a peaceful settlement of its internal crisis. Ethiopia seized a former Rwandan official and a leading genocide suspect at Addis Ababa airport, and handed him over to the Rwandan judiciary in late July. Meanwhile, persistent tensions characterized its relations with neighboring Sudan and Somalia, both of which it accused of sheltering violent opposition groups.

United States

United States officials expressed confidence in the steps that the government undertook to democratize and liberalize the country and called on opposition groups to participate in the political process. Ethiopia occupied a pivotal position in the U.S. policy initiatives aimed at consolidating regional stability. It emerged as a close partner in the U.S.-led efforts to counter the Islamist government of Sudan=s influence in the region. A measure of this close partnership was the high level of official exchanges between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher stopped in Addis Ababa for official talks during his first tour in sub-Sahara Africa in October. In April, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency visited Addis Ababa and discussed with officials regional security concerns. This followed a visit in February by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who pledged U.S. assistance to Ethiopia=s army and a commitment to contributing to the consolidation of peace in the Horn of Africa. Levels of bilateral economic assistance reflected the prominence of Ethiopia as it ranked, with $109 million, as the third biggest recipient of U.S. aid to the continent in Fiscal Year 1996.

Local human rights advocates told Human Rights Watch/Africa that U.S. embassy officials sought to investigate some of the incidents they reported. While this was reflected in a thorough and critical chapter on the human rights situation in Ethiopia in the State Department=s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, officials of the Clinton administration made no public criticism of the current government=s rights record. A welcome departure from this attitude occurred during the secretary of state=s visit to Ethiopia in October when he declined an invitation by Ethiopian officials to address a joint press conference in protest, as his aides announced, against the harassment and imprisonment of independent journalists and their exclusion from official press conferences. The secretary of state told reporters later that AEthiopia has made progress in human rights during the past five years, but the United States wants to see more. One of the areas of our concern is the freedom of the press and the treatment of journalists.@

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