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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Ethiopia

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Author Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Ethiopia, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 21 November 2017]
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.

Political context

Despite the Peace Agreement signed in 2000 and the establishment of a United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea, the peace process remained in stalemate in 2007 due to constant arguments over demarcation of the border between the two countries. In December 2006, Ethiopia embarked on military intervention in Somalia on the pretext of supporting the federal transitional Government against the advances of the insurgent Union of Islamic Courts, who demanded the return to "Great Somalia". Its army was still present in the country at the end of 2007. Its status as an ally in the war against terrorism meant that it was very little criticised for human rights violations in Somalia and in the fighting against the Ethiopian rebel movements, or for its policy of repression of human rights defenders.

Furthermore, in spite of constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of information, the Ethiopian Government maintained strict control over Internet access and on-line media. The sole access provider is State-run. Access to political blogs and human rights information is blocked but information is often available on other sites and no sanctions have so far been taken against the authors, often Ethiopian, of articles posted on these sites.1

Obstacles to freedom of association

In September 2006, the Minister of Justice had issued an official memorandum on NGO registration to a very restricted distribution list, stating that henceforth NGOs should present their programme of proposed activities to a committee made up of representatives from eight Ministries, and sign agreements with Government agencies to obtain or renew their licenses. It appeared that a bill on NGOs was about to be finalised without consulting civil society organisations.

Sentencing of human rights defenders who contested the validity of the 2005 elections

In 2007, defenders continued to suffer the consequences of the wave of arrests and judicial proceedings following the violent repression by the security forces of demonstrators who contested the validity of the parliamentary elections held on May 15, 2005 and the victory of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Several trials came to an end this year but the harassment of certain defenders, who refused to sign a declaration recognising the unconstitutional nature of the demonstrations, continued.

In December 2005, more than a hundred people, including Messrs. Kassahun Kebede, a member of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), Daniel Bekele, Director of the Action Aid programme in Ethiopia, and Netsanet Desmissie, founder of the Organisation for Social Justice in Ethiopia (OSJE), were accused of "conspiracy", "inciting to armed rebellion", "outrage against the Constitutional order", "high treason" and even "genocide", for having dared to contest the validity of the outcome of the 2005 parliamentary election. On several occasions, the Observatory condemned the many irregularities of the judicial procedure against them as well as the Prosecutor's address, asking for application of the death penalty.

In April 2007, under the watch of the international community, the Ethiopian Federal High Court ordered the acquittal and release of many of the accused, including Mr. Kassahun Kebede. Several newspaper editors and journalists were also acquitted and released. On July 20, 2007, the President pardoned 38 of the 43 who had been sentenced, after they acknowledged in writing having resorted to unconstitutional methods to overthrow the Government. Messrs. Bekele and Desmissie, who had refused to sign this declaration, appealed to the Supreme Court. Their release on bail was consistently refused and, on December 26, 2007, following a trial that was postponed several times, they were finally found guilty of having provoked and prepared attacks on the Constitution. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Obstacles to humanitarian stakeholders operating in conflict zones

The Ethiopian regime is in conflict with the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front in the south, and the Ethiopian People's Patriotic Front (EPPF) in the north. In these regions, the authorities do not tolerate any condemnation of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including arbitrary arrests and disappearances of civilians. Thus, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans frontières – MSF) were accused of supporting the Ogaden National Liberation Front and expelled in August 2007. Several defenders were also treated as members of the Ethiopian People's Patriotic Front and were even forced to confess under torture that they belonged to this group.

Obstacles to freedom of association for the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA)

In 2007, the Government continued to interfere with ETA activities and to harass and repress its members. The ETA case dates back more than ten years and concerns the obstacles to the legal right of teachers to freely organise themselves without Government interference. At present, two unions exist, the old ETA and the new ETA, created by the authorities. Meetings of the old ETA have again been prevented this year, its equipment has been confiscated and several of its members arrested and tortured.

One of the practices of the Ethiopian authorities has been to allocate union contributions to the new ETA through a system of direct debit from salaries, despite the protests of teachers. Teachers who condemned the practice were penalised. Furthermore, in its last ruling on June 21, 2007, the Federal High Court confirmed that the legal status of the new ETA allowed it to hold the financial assets of the old ETA. With respect to this, in November 2007, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association called on the Government "to fully observe the right of [the original] ETA to organise its internal administration free from interference by the public authorities and to provide a full and detailed reply in respect of the numerous and serious allegations [...] of repeated Government interference and harassment, arrest, detention and torture of ETA members for over a decade".2

Furthermore, Mr. Anteneh Getnet, member of the ETA Addis Ababa Regional Council, Mr. Meqcha Mengistu, Chairperson of the ETA's branch in East Gojam and member of the ETA Committee responsible for the Implementation of an HIV/AIDS education programme, Mr. Woldie Dana, an ETA leader, Ms. Wibit Legamo, the wife of the latter, and Mr. Berrhanu Aba-Debissa, an ETA leader, were arrested in May, June and August 2007 and accused of being EPPF members. After being held at Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, they were released on bail on December 20, 2007. Mr. Getnet and Mr. Mengistu were tortured in prison and forced to sign false confessions. The court dismissed the false confessions but did not order an investigation into the allegations of torture.3

Obstacles to defenders' access to information in zones of rebellion

In Ethiopia, the work of NGOs is constantly hindered by a number of factors, primarily the difficulty of obtaining information from public authorities. As an example, the Government is very suspicious of anyone who tries to collect information on human rights violations in zones of rebellion, thus creating an environment in which impunity persists. This task has become practically impossible in the Oromo region. For instance, on August 23, 2007, Mr. Fekadu Negeri, Mr. Tefsa Burayu and Mr. Ibsa Wake, members of the Executive Committee of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) for the Nekmte region, were arrested and then released without being charged, illustrating the police practice of abusing preventive detention on the pretext of needing extra time for the investigation. Moreover, Mr. Abdi Abate, a member of EHRCO, was still in prison at the end of 2007, accused of belonging to the Liberation Front.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 See the Open Net Initiative country file on Ethiopia.

2 See 348th Report of the Committee on Freedom of Association, paragraph 695, November 2007.

3 "In view of the seriousness of the allegations concerning the torture of Messrs. Getnet and Mengistu during their detention to make them confess their membership in an illegal organisation, the long period of detention, the vague nature of the charges, their release on several occasions without any explanation as to the reasons for their detention only to be rearrested, the Committee urges the Government to initiate without delay an independent inquiry, to be led by a person that has the confidence of all the parties concerned, to fully clarify the circumstances surrounding their successive arrests and detentions, determine responsibility if it is found that they have been subjected to maltreatment and punish those responsible" (See 348th Report of the Committee on Freedom of Association, paragraph 695, November 2007).

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