Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

Head of state: Negasso Gidada
Head of government: Meles Zenawi
Capital: Addis Ababa
Population: 58.8 million
Official language: Amharic
Death penalty: retentionist

The continuing war with Eritrea dominated events, with each side accusing the other of human rights abuses. Many allegations were difficult to verify independently, but Ethiopia detained and forcibly deported Eritreans in harsh conditions. The war led to huge casualties and massive internal displacement. Ethiopia also faced internal armed opposition, and many human rights violations by government forces were reported. Suspected rebel supporters were detained, tortured or sometimes extrajudicially executed. As many as 10,000 remained in detention at the end of 1999, some of whom had been held for several years without charge or trial. Critics of the government, including journalists, were arrested. Some received unfair trials. The trial for genocide of 46 former government leaders continued and trials of more than 2,000 other officials held since 1991 began.


War with Eritrea

Heavy fighting on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea resumed in February 1999 after a three-month lull. Ethiopian troops regained the Badme area occupied in May 1998 by Eritrean forces. There was intermittent fighting in later months on several fronts along the 1,000 kilometre disputed border. More than 300,000 Ethiopian troops were reportedly deployed, some of whom were alleged to have been forcibly recruited, including some aged under 18. Tens of thousands of troops on both sides were reported to have been killed and hundreds captured. Several civilians on both sides were killed, mainly in air strikes which violated a 1998 moratorium. More than 200,000 Ethiopians were displaced and living in camps in poor conditions. Ethiopia allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to Eritrean prisoners of war.

International and regional mediation efforts to obtain a lasting cease-fire and peace agreement, including UN Security Council resolutions, had not succeeded by the end of 1999. In July both sides accepted an Organization of African Unity peace plan and cease-fire, but outbreaks of fighting continued and in December Ethiopia formally rejected the terms of implementation of the peace plan.

Ethiopia repeatedly accused Eritrea of human rights violations against Ethiopians. More than 3,000 Ethiopians returned to Ethiopia from Eritrea in early 1999, bringing the number of Ethiopians who had returned since the start of the war to more than 25,000. They did not appear to have been expelled by the Eritrean government and most of Ethiopia's claims of abuses against its nationals in Eritrea were not independently substantiated.

In July the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights meeting in Rwanda heard submissions from both sides regarding human rights abuses during the war. It reserved judgment but appealed to both sides to observe the cease-fire and halt all propaganda activity against each other.

Other conflicts

The government continued to face armed opposition in several regions. Fighting was reported in the Oromo region by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and in the Somali region by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Al-Itihad, an Islamist group allied to the ONLF.

Ethiopian troops pursued Al-Itihad fighters into Somalia's Gedo region, as well as supporting Somali factions in other border regions. Ethiopia promoted peace talks among the Somali factions, and in October apparently agreed to withdraw Ethiopian troops from Somalia in exchange for Somali faction leader Hussein Aideed's agreement to disarm and expel OLF forces in Somalia. More than 300 OLF fighters captured by Ethiopian troops in Somalia in early 1999 were taken to Ethiopia and detained in Ziwai.


The government announced in August that parliamentary elections would be held in May 2000. Candidates were registered but few opposition parties participated, and most candidates were linked to the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Several opposition parties alleged intimidation, harassment, arrests of members and closure of offices. Exiled political groups refused to participate and armed opposition groups were excluded. The government said it would not accept foreign election observers.

Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman

A draft law to establish an official Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman was presented to parliament in mid-1999 but was not finalized during the year.

Expulsions and internment

Ethiopia continued its policy of mass expulsions of Eritreans. In January and February Ethiopia expelled more than 6,300 people of Eritrean origin in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions and stripped them of Ethiopian citizenship. During 1999, several thousand Eritreans in Ethiopia voluntarily registered with the ICRC to return. In July, 2,350 Eritreans were rounded up and bussed to the border, and 3,000 more were expelled between October and December. They had to pay for the transport but were allowed to take little food and few possessions. Not all had volunteered to leave, and some families were deliberately split up. Some had been in prison for months.

Approximately 1,200 Eritreans detained in Bilate military camp were allowed access to the ICRC, but not family visits. In June they were transferred to Dedessa camp near Dire Dawa, where conditions were harsh. Several died of malaria and other illnesses, and ill-treatment and denial of medical treatment were alleged. Although the Ethiopian authorities reportedly said they would allow them to depart for a third country, few managed to leave. Thirty-eight university students were released in February and returned to Eritrea. Over 40 who went to Malawi in June were forcibly returned and redetained – one was shot dead by Malawian police while allegedly escaping arrest.

Political imprisonment

Hundreds of people were arrested for political reasons, most of whom were detained without charge or trial, some in secret. Some were prisoners of conscience.

Detention without trial

In January, 18 members of the opposition Gambela People's Democratic Congress, including Abula Obang, were arrested in the southwestern Gambela region. They were still held without charge at the end of 1999.

In the Omo district in the southwest, some 500 people of the Wolaita, Mali and Aree ethnic groups were detained without charge in November and December for peacefully opposing government imposition of a newly created language.

Many people were arrested on suspicion of involvement with armed opposition groups, particularly the OLF. Mosissa Duressa, an Ethiopian Red Cross official in Nekemte, was detained for two months from August and was a prisoner of conscience. Tassew Begashew, a doctor arrested in August, was still held at the end of 1999.

In May several government opponents in Sidama region were detained without charge on suspicion of links with the Sidama Liberation Movement. Hundreds of ethnic Somalis were reportedly arrested for alleged links with the ONLF. Iid Dahir Farah, president of the Somali Region Assembly, was arrested in September and was still held without charge at the end of 1999.

Political trials

Trials began of a number of long-term detainees.

In April, Wondayehu Kassa and three other officials of the opposition All-Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), and 18 other people, were convicted of conspiracy to armed opposition in connection with an attack on a prison in 1996. They were sentenced by the High Court in Addis Ababa to prison terms ranging from three to 20 years. Several defendants withdrew confessions, alleging torture, but the judges ignored the torture allegations. The AAPO officials (who were released after serving their sentences) and some other defendants appeared to be prisoners of conscience.

Professor Asrat Woldeyes, the AAPO chairperson who had been the chief defendant in the trial but had been allowed to go abroad for medical treatment in December 1998, died in the USA in May. At his funeral in Addis Ababa, police shot dead one demonstrator and beat and briefly detained several others.

In June Taye Wolde-Semayat, president of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association and a former university lecturer, was convicted in Addis Ababa with four others of armed conspiracy in 1996. He was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment and appeared to be a prisoner of conscience. Two defendants withdrew confessions allegedly made under torture. A sixth defendant, Kebede Desta, died in detention in April, allegedly as a result of denial of medical treatment.

In October, 12 members of the Somali Region Assembly who had criticized the central government and were arrested in 1997 for alleged corruption and mismanagement, were convicted of armed conspiracy by the High Court in Dire Dawa. They were sentenced to three years' imprisonment after an unfair trial and released in October after serving their sentences.

The trial in Addis Ababa of over 60 Oromos for armed conspiracy with the OLF which began in 1997 continued in camera . The defendants included seven human rights defenders and two journalists. Three defendants were provisionally released in April. Several alleged that they had been tortured. At least 10 of the defendants, including Addisu Beyene, secretary general of the Oromo Relief Association, Gabissa Lamessa, an accountant for Save the Children Fund, and Tesfaye Deressa, a journalist, were prisoners of conscience.


Government repression of the private press continued. In April, Samson Seyoum, detained in Addis Ababa since 1995, was finally brought to court, convicted under the Press Law for alleged incitement to violence and jailed for four and a half years. He was released on completion of his sentence. Aberra Wogi received a one-year sentence in December. Two other journalists were arrested in 1999 and were awaiting trial.

Torture and ill-treatment

There were continued reports of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners. Torture took place in police stations and unofficial detention centres where prisoners "disappeared". In cases which went to trial, judges did not investigate complaints of torture. Prison conditions were generally harsh, and some political prisoners were refused adequate medical attention, leading to deaths in custody. There were reports of a secret underground cell in a military police prison in Harar holding more than 150 uncharged detainees in appalling conditions, some of whom had been detained for several years.

Dergue trials

The prosecution case against 46 members of the former military government (known as the Dergue) for genocide and other crimes against humanity, which started in 1994, continued. Some trials started of the 2,246 other former officials detained since 1991 and charged with similar offences. Two defendants were convicted of murder and torture and sentenced to prison terms, while two tried in absentia were sentenced to death in November. Eighteen former air force pilots were freed in August to join the war.

There were international demands for former President Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who visited South Africa from exile in Zimbabwe, to be tried for massive human rights violations committed during his 17-year rule. AI criticized his apparent impunity in Zimbabwe and pressed for him to be tried but, if returned to Ethiopia, without the use of the death penalty and with respect for fair trial standards.

Extrajudicial executions

Extrajudicial executions of suspected rebel supporters were reported but details were difficult to confirm.

Death penalty

No executions were reported. Several people were sentenced to death for murder in 1999, adding to scores of others sentenced to death since 1991.



Eleven journalists were in prison at the beginning of 1999 on account of their work. Three were released on completion of their sentences.


Up to 10,000 people detained in previous years, mostly suspected of supporting Oromo or Somali armed opposition groups, remained in detention without charge or trial but with access to the ICRC. Some were prisoners of conscience. There was no progress in the trial of 285 OLF fighters held in Ziwai since 1992. There were some releases of political detainees, mostly on a provisional basis. Several opponents forcibly returned from Somaliland and Djibouti in 1996 remained in detention.


Some people held in secret detention centres "reappeared", but there was little hope for the survival of many government opponents who "disappeared" between 1992 and 1995.

AI country report

  • Ethiopia and Eritrea: Human rights issues in a year of armed conflict (AI Index: AFR 04/003/99)

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