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On May 15, 2005, Ethiopia will hold national elections.  The international community, including international donors, who have poured substantial amounts of aid into Ethiopia since the current government came to power fourteen years ago, will be watching these elections closely for signs that Ethiopia is moving towards real democracy.  In advance of these elections, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi enacted reforms that could, on the surface, make the elections more open.  However, as this report documents, the political freedoms required for elections to be a meaningful exercise of Ethiopian citizens’ fundamental right to participate in the selection of their government do not exist for many Ethiopians.  In Oromia, the largest and most populous state in Ethiopia, systematic political repression and pervasive human rights violations have denied citizens the freedom to associate and to freely form and express their political ideas.  As a result, on election day, most voters there are unlikely to be presented with real choices.

Since 1992, regional authorities in Oromia have cultivated a climate of fear and repression by using state power to punish political dissent in often brutal fashion.  Regional and local authorities have consistently harassed and abused perceived critics of the current government.  And in the past year, these authorities have taken drastic new steps to consolidate their control over the region’s large rural population.  This backdrop of oppression must be factored into any assessment of the upcoming elections.

Oromia is governed by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which was formed by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1990 and integrated into the TPLF-controlled Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that seized power in and continues to hold power today.  The OPDO has dominated politics in Oromia since 1992, when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had much older and deeper roots in Oromia, withdrew from the transitional political process after clashes with the EPRDF and the OPDO in the run-up to the country’s first national elections in 1992.  Since then, OLF has waged a generally ineffectual “armed struggle” against the government—and the OPDO, the TPLF’s regional surrogate, has governed Oromia as if it were facing a serious military threat.

Since 1992, security forces have imprisoned thousands of Oromo on charges of plotting armed insurrection on behalf of the OLF.  Such accusations have regularly been used as a transparent pretext to imprison individuals who publicly question government policies or actions.  Security forces have tortured many detainees and subjected them to continuing harassment and abuse for years after their release.  That harassment, in turn, has often destroyed victims’ ability to earn a livelihood and isolated them from their communities. 

In urban areas, regional authorities have treated Oromia’s student population in particular with suspicion and mistrust.  Between 2000 and 2004, Oromo students poured into the streets of major towns throughout the region several times to protest government policies.  Police and security forces put those demonstrations down with unnecessary force—and the regional government reacted by subjecting students in schools throughout the region to persistent and intrusive surveillance, both in and out of the classroom.  Teachers have been required to gather information about their students for school administrators and government officials on pain of transfer to remote postings far from their homes and families.  Students who have had the misfortune to be labeled subversives by government officials have been imprisoned, tortured or expelled from school.

In the countryside, where more than eighty-five percent of Oromia’s population resides, the government has gone to even greater lengths to maintain control and put down dissent.  Expanding upon a pre-existing system of local government that was designed by the Derg primarily as a tool to maintain tight political control, regional authorities have created an entirely new set of quasi-governmental institutions that now monitor and control the activities, speech and movement of the rural population down to the level of individual households. 

Regional authorities claim that these new institutions, called gott and garee, are voluntary associations of like-minded farmers who have joined together to carry out development work in their communities.  But farmers throughout Oromia told Human Rights Watch that woreda (district) authorities imposed these new structures on their communities and that the garee regularly require them to perform forced labor on projects they have no hand in designing.  More disturbingly, regional authorities are using the gott and garee to monitor the speech and personal lives of the rural population, to restrict and control the movement of residents, and to enforce farmers’ attendance at “meetings” that are thinly disguised OPDO political rallies.

These abuses stand in fundamental contradiction to the human rights principles enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution and seriously call into question the Ethiopian government’s claim that it is making real progress in putting in place democratic forms of governance.  The thousands of Oromo who have been subjected to detention, torture and harassment for voicing their political opinions serve as examples that intimidate their neighbors and friends into silence.  Improvements in the electoral process have done nothing to change this reality.  Instead, the pervasive pattern of repression and abuse documented in this report ensures that voting on May 15 will be a hollow exercise for most of Oromia’s population.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Ethiopian government to end the deeply entrenched patterns of human rights violations documented in this report.  It also urges international observers charged with monitoring the May 2005 elections in Ethiopia to take into account the effects of pervasive human rights abuse on Ethiopians’ ability to exercise their right to free political expression.

This report is based on a three-week Human Rights Watch research mission in March 2005 to the capital Addis Ababa and towns in Oromia’s East Shewa, West Shewa, East Wollega, West Wollega and Jimma zones.  Human Rights Watch interviewed about 115 persons; just over half were farmers from rural kebeles1 in Oromia.  The remaining interviews were of Oromo civil society and opposition figures, current and former government officials and residents of urban areas who have experienced various forms of human rights abuse.  In most cases, names and other identifying details have been withheld to protect the security of victims and witnesses.

[1] The kebele is the smallest unit of government in Ethiopia, corresponding roughly to neighborhoods in urban areas and to larger geographic areas in more sparsely-populated areas of the countryside.

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