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Amnesty International Report 1999 - Ethiopia

Publisher Amnesty International
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1999 - Ethiopia, 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Thousands of critics and suspected opponents of the government were arrested, including prisoners of conscience. Some were tried, but most were detained without charge or trial. They included 1,200 people of Eritrean origin. More than 40,000 other Eritreans were briefly detained and then deported to Eritrea. More than 10,000 political prisoners arrested in earlier years remained in detention, most without charge or trial. The trial for genocide of 46 former government leaders continued for a fourth year, while more than 2,000 other former government and party officials, most held since 1991, appeared in court for the first time. Reports of torture continued. Eritrean deportees were ill-treated. Prison conditions were harsh. "Disappearances" and extrajudicial executions continued to be reported. Several death sentences were imposed. One execution took place – the first since 1991.

War broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea on 6 May over a border dispute. Air strikes by both sides were suspended after Eritrean air attacks in June killed 48 people, including children, in a school and in other civilian areas of Mekelle and Adigrat towns in Tigray in northern Ethiopia. An Ethiopian air attack on Eritrea's Asmara airport killed one person. Several hundred soldiers on each side were reportedly killed in June. Many others taken prisoner were reportedly allowed access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Towards the end of the year there was renewed shelling around the contested areas and near Adigrat town. More than 200,000 civilians were displaced in northern border areas. International mediation in the conflict, led by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), a UN Special Envoy and US government envoys, had not achieved a peace agreement by the end of the year. More than 40,000 Eritreans, most of whom were Ethiopian citizens, were deported to Eritrea. Thousands of Ethiopian citizens in Eritrea lost their jobs as a result of the hostilities and had to return destitute to Ethiopia (see Eritrea entry).

The internal armed conflict between the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) continued in the Oromo region; in the Somali region and at least three other regions there was armed opposition from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian Unity Front. There were major intercommunal disturbances in July in the south between the Gedeo and Oromo-Guji peoples; 3,000 people were reportedly killed.

In early May Ethiopia called an international conference to consider the establishment of a national human rights commission and an ombudsman's office. The conference, attended by many international experts as well as hundreds of Ethiopian government officials, affirmed the need for the commission to be independent and impartial. Laws to establish it were still being drafted at the end of the year.

In June Ethiopia acceded to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Thousands of critics and opponents of the government were arrested, including prisoners of conscience. Some 20 journalists were arrested under the 1993 Press Law and held without trial for publishing articles critical of the government. In January Anteneh Merid and Taye Belachew were among four journalists and six staff members of the newspaper Tobia who were arrested after Tobia published a security plan for UN staff in Addis Ababa. The government alleged they were inciting violence and detained them without charge for seven months. Kifle Mulat, an official of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, was arrested in February after publishing a list of detained journalists and held without charge for two months. Alemayehu Kifle of the newspaper Zegabi was arrested in May after publishing an article criticizing harsh prison conditions and held for several months. By the end of the year 17 journalists remained in prison, including seven who had been arrested in 1997 but who had not yet been tried.

There were further arrests in January of members of the Oromo ethnic group (or "nationality"). Several were among 31 people charged with armed conspiracy and involvement with the OLF. The 31 included seven members of the Human Rights League and two journalists detained in late 1997, who were prisoners of conscience (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Scores more Oromos were arrested in February in Addis Ababa and other towns, including folk-singers Mohamed Sheka and Muktar Usman, students, civil servants and journalists. Most were released without charge after a few weeks. However, 34 Oromos arrested in March, including Gizaw Irana, a doctor, and Zawditu Deressa, a nurse, were charged with armed conspiracy and brought into the trial of the 31. At the end of the year, the trial of the new total of 65 defendants was still at the preliminary stage. Many other people suspected of having links with the OLF were arrested, all of whom were detained without charge or trial.

Six Oromo refugees deported from Djibouti in January were arrested when they were handed over to Ethiopian police. Ali Omar, a refugee community leader, was released in mid-1998; others, including Sheikh Mussa Hassan Abdi, were believed to be still detained without charge or trial at the end of the year. These hand-overs were part of a security arrangement between Ethiopia and Djibouti, which in May led to Ethiopia handing over two Djibouti opposition members to the Djibouti authorities who arrested them and charged them with armed conspiracy (see Djibouti entry).

In January, 1,500 Sudanese refugees were arrested in Addis Ababa and forcibly sent to rural refugee camps. One was shot dead by police during non-violent resistance to the move.

In June Ethiopia began mass arrests and deportations to Eritrea of men, women and children of full or part Eritrean origin, most of whom had been born in Ethiopia or had worked there as citizens prior to Eritrea achieving independence from Ethiopia in 1991. More than 40 UN and OAU staff, as well as Eritreans of foreign nationality and people of mixed Ethiopian/Eritrean parentage, were also deported, and Eritreans abroad had their Ethiopian citizenship withdrawn. Among the first to be deported was 87-year-old Gebre-Tensai Tedla. Ethiopia claimed that they were no longer Ethiopian citizens and said that they were a threat to national security. They and their families were deported to Eritrea without any formal or judicial process or opportunity to challenge their deportations. They were not allowed to take their property with them. By the end of the year more than 40,000 people had been deported in harsh conditions. Large numbers of Eritreans were also detained on suspicion of espionage. Some 1,200, mostly young men, were detained without charge or trial in the remote Bilate military camp near Awasa at the end of the year. Eighty-five Eritrean students on an exchange scheme studying at Addis Ababa University were detained, of whom 38 remained in detention without charge or trial at the end of the year.

Three officials of the independent Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA), Shimelis Zewde, Abate Angore and Aworke Mulugeta, were arrested in Addis Ababa in September and held for almost a month without charge, in a further attempt by the government to close down the ETA for criticizing government policies.

Scores of ethnic Somalis suspected of involvement with armed opposition groups, such as the ONLF, were arrested in the Somali region throughout the year and detained without charge or trial. They included several members of the Ogaden Women's Democratic Association, including Korad Ahmed Suhal, who were arrested in January on suspicion of being ONLF members. They remained in detention at the end of the year. Yusuf Hirsi Olow, an ONLF member deported from Djibouti in 1996 (see previous Amnesty International Reports), died in prison. He had reportedly been denied medical treatment after he was tortured.

Some political prisoners detained in previous years were released without being put on trial. They included Mengesha Dogoma, a politician from the south held since 1992, Mohamoud Muhumed Hashi of the Ogaden Welfare Society detained in 1996, and at least five journalists held since 1997.

More than 10,000 political detainees held since 1996 or earlier on account of their opposition to the government, some possibly prisoners of conscience, remained in detention. Few of them had been charged or tried.

Four long-running political trials continued with numerous lengthy adjournments. In the trials of 32 people, including Asrat Woldeyes, a prominent doctor and chairperson of the All-Amhara People's Organization, and of six people, including Taye Woldesemayat, an academic and ETA chairperson (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998) more witnesses testified that the defendants had been tortured to make false statements but the judges refused to open investigations into these claims. Asrat Woldeyes, imprisoned since 1994, was allowed to go abroad in December for urgent medical treatment. There were further repeated adjournments of the trials of six remaining defendants in the Anwar mosque case of 1995 and of 65 remaining defendants in a trial of OLF fighters held since 1992 (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Other defendants had been provisionally released.

In the ongoing trial of 46 members of the former military government (the Dergue) for genocide and other offences, which began in 1994, the prosecution presented a further 150 witnesses, bringing the total number to 550 so far. Preliminary proceedings were opened against some of the 2,246 other officials detained; most had been held since 1991.

Torture of political prisoners continued to be reported. The police deportations of more than 40,000 Eritrean men, women and children amounted to ill-treatment. Families were split up with men deported first and their wives and children deported separately later. They were held in harsh conditions before being forced to board buses under armed guard for a three-day journey with little water or food and no treatment for the sick. They were then dumped at the border with Eritrea and forced to walk long distances to reach safety.

Prison conditions were harsh and medical treatment was often delayed or denied. Abay Haile, editor of the newspaper Agere, who had been held without trial for two years, died in prison in February after inadequate medical treatment. Asrat Woldeyes (see above) was belatedly admitted to hospital in January after a mild stroke in prison. His health deteriorated seriously in December and he was finally allowed to go abroad for medical treatment not available in Ethiopia.

There were renewed reports of "disappearances" of suspected government opponents who were believed to be held in secret detention centres where they were at risk of torture or extrajudicial execution. Those reported as having "disappeared" in previous years were feared to have been extrajudicially executed.

Extrajudicial executions of suspected supporters of various armed opposition movements were reported, especially in the conflict zones. One prominent non-violent government opponent, Tesfaye Tadesse, a lawyer and publisher, was killed in Addis Ababa in June, allegedly by members of the security forces.

One execution was carried out – the first since the overthrow of the Dergue in 1991. Jamal Yasin Mohamed, an Eritrean businessman, was executed in June in Addis Ababa's Central Prison after losing an appeal against his conviction for the murder of an army general in 1977. Several people were sentenced to death during the year, adding to scores of prisoners  who had been sentenced to death in previous years.

Amnesty International pressed for the release of prisoners of conscience, and for political prisoners to be tried in accordance with international standards of fair trial. It expressed concern at the slowness of the trials of former Dergue government officials. The organization criticized the deportations of Eritreans and campaigned against torture and ill-treatment, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions. It expressed regret at Ethiopia's first execution since 1991, which seemed to have been politically motivated.

In its April report, Ethiopia: Journalists in prison – press freedom under attack, Amnesty International criticized the Press Law and the continuing detention and unfair trial of journalists. In May it published an open letter to participants at the conference on the formation of a national human rights commission and an ombudsman's office, calling for these to be empowered to conduct independent and impartial investigations into human rights violations. Amnesty International was denied an invitation to the human rights commission conference and its researcher on Ethiopia continued to be excluded from the country.

When war with Eritrea broke out in May, Amnesty International appealed to the Ethiopian government to respect the Geneva Conventions and not target civilians. Amnesty International representatives visited Ethiopia in October to examine human rights issues arising from the conflict with Eritrea. In December the organization wrote to the government expressing deep concern at the mass deportation of Eritreans and the ill-treatment of deportees.

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