Covering events from January-December 2001

Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Head of state: Girma Wolde-Giorgis (replaced Negasso Gidada in October)
Head of government: Meles Zenawi
Capital: Addis Ababa
Population: 58.8 million
Official language: Amharic
Death penalty: retentionist

At least 31 people were killed and over 3,000 arrested during rioting in April. Armed conflict continued within Ethiopia between government forces and Oromo and Somali opponents; many human rights violations by government troops were reported. Suspected rebel supporters were detained, tortured and extrajudicially executed. Several thousand remained in detention; some had been held for years without charge or trial. Journalists, human rights activists, demonstrators and other critics of the government were arrested. Most were held without trial, although some received unfair trials. During local elections in March, April and December scores of opposition party supporters were subjected to intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrest. The trials of officials of the former military government on charges including genocide and extrajudicial executions proceeded slowly. Several death sentences were imposed; no executions were reported.


The mandate of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), created under the 2000 Algiers Agreement which ended the war with Eritrea, was extended to March 2002. In May, the UN arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia was lifted. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea alleged that the other side illegally entered the UNMEE-monitored Temporary Security Zone, a buffer zone inside Eritrea, on a number of occasions throughout the year. UNMEE reported occasional restrictions on freedom of movement imposed on the Ethiopian side. The Boundary and Compensation Commissions, instituted under the Algiers Agreement, were established. Although both sides began to repatriate prisoners of war in early 2001, disagreements led to a considerable slowing down of the process by the end of the year.

In March internal conflict within the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant party of the ruling coalition, led to the expulsion of 12 members of its Central Committee. A number of regional and security officials were dismissed and some were arrested. Over the following months many key officials left the TPLF. In May Kinfe Gebre-Medhin, who was in charge of internal security in the government, was assassinated. Eighteen people, including two of those recently expelled from the TPLF, were arrested in May for corruption. In June, President Negasso Gidada was removed from the Central Committee of his party and in October, when his presidential term expired, he was replaced by Girma Wolde-Giorgis.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was reappointed in September as Chair of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, and formed a new cabinet.

Although legislation had been passed in July 2000 allowing for the formation of a national human rights commission and ombudsman's office to be established in 2002, nominating committees had not been established for either body by the end of 2001.

Refugees and returnees

Hundreds of people internally displaced by the war began to return to their homes. Thousands of Ethiopians were voluntarily repatriated from Eritrea under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). However, in June the ICRC complained that 722 Eritreans were involuntarily repatriated from Ethiopia; the Ethiopian authorities said they had returned willingly.

Internal and regional armed conflicts

The government continued to face long-running armed opposition in the Oromo region from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and in the Somali region from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and its ally al-Itihad, an Islamist group with ties to Islamist groups in Somalia. Many human rights abuses were reported in the context of these two conflicts, particularly by government troops against civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.

Ethiopian government troops remained in Somalia's Gedo, Bay and Bakol regions, supporting particular local Somali factions.

April riots

On 10 April, police violently dispersed students at Addis Ababa University who were peacefully protesting on their campus against restrictions on their academic freedoms. Over 40 students were injured and the situation on campus remained tense during the following week.

On 17 April, the authorities ordered the students to return to their classes or face expulsion. According to reports, a group of protesters supporting the students then began to throw stones at a police post next to the University. The police retaliated violently and two days of rioting ensued, which resulted in the deaths of at least 31 people. The police used live bullets and admitted to excessive use of force. However, investigations into the riots did not appear to be independent or impartial and no police officers had been brought to justice by the end of the year.

Around 3,000 people, including students, opposition party members, human rights activists and newspaper vendors, were arrested. Most were released without charge over the following months. In November the government announced that it had sentenced 326 of the 1,114 people still detained to prison terms of between four and 10 months for theft and destruction of property. A further 531 were on bail pending trial at the end of the year.

Many of those released complained of ill-treatment during detention and at least two people reportedly died in detention. Demonstrations held outside Addis Ababa in support of the students were violently disrupted by police and at least seven people were arrested and detained without charge for weeks. Many students, mainly from Addis Ababa University, fled to Kenya and Djibouti.

  • Mesfin Wolde Mariam, former Secretary General of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), and Dr Berhanu Nega, a supporter of EHRCO, were arrested in Addis Ababa on 8 May. The two men were charged with "organizing themselves under an underground political party ... with a view to changing the Constitution through illegal means" and "incitement to violence". They were released on bail in June. Their trial began on 4 December, but was adjourned until April 2002. The offices of EHRCO were shut down for 10 days and searched by police following the arrests.
Detentions without charge or trial

In July the Ministry of Justice stated that 600 people in the Oromo region were in detention without trial, most since 1999, primarily as a result of failures in police investigation. However, the number of those detained was feared to be much higher as, in the Oromo and Somali regions in particular, thousands of detainees arrested over the previous eight years continued to be detained without charge or trial.

Political trials

Hundreds of people were arrested for political reasons. Most were detained without charge or trial; the authorities failed to allow access to or to give information on the whereabouts of some detainees. They included prisoners of conscience and others who, although ostensibly detained on suspicion of having links with armed opposition groups, particularly the OLF and ONLF, may in fact have been detained for their non-violent political activities.
  • In May, 28 of a group of 60 Oromos being tried together in Addis Ababa were released. They had been arrested in 1997 and charged with armed conspiracy with the OLF. Those released included seven founding members of the Human Rights League, and journalists, including Tesfaye Deressa, Solomon Namara, Garoma Bekele and Tilahun Hirpasa, all of whom then fled the country. Trials for the remaining 32, including one other member of the League, were continuing at the end of 2001.
  • Appeal hearings began in October for Taye Wolde-Semayat, President of the Ethiopian Teachers Association and a prisoner of conscience. He had been sentenced in 1999 to 15 years in prison for "armed conspiracy". Appeal hearings were still ongoing at the end of the year.

Political prisoners reportedly continued to be tortured and ill-treated. Torture took place during unlawful and incommunicado detention in official and unofficial places of custody. Allegations of torture made by prisoners were not investigated by officials. Prison conditions were generally harsh and medical treatment was inadequate.

Dergue trials

Trials continued of former officials of the government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam (known as the Dergue). They were charged with genocide and other crimes against humanity. Over 2,200 other former officials remained in prison awaiting trial. Scores were convicted and sentenced to prison terms, many were acquitted and at least five were reportedly sentenced to death. In March the Special Prosecutor for the trials said they would be finished in 2004.

Arrests and harassment of critics

Scores of government critics were harassed and arrested throughout the year. Police arrested journalists from the privately owned media on the grounds that articles criticizing the government were false or a threat to security. Dozens of journalists were taken in for questioning and released on bail with charges pending. Several fled the country after repeated court appearances and police summonses. Many were prisoners of conscience.
  • In August the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association was suspended by the Ministry of Justice for six weeks, ostensibly for operating beyond its jurisdiction. The suspension followed a television program in which members of the Association criticized the government.
Killings by government forces

Scores of people, including suspected rebel supporters, were reportedly killed by government forces during 2001 in what appeared to be extrajudicial executions or indiscriminate use of force.

Death penalty

Several people were sentenced to death for murder. No executions were reported.

AI country reports/visits

  • Ethiopia: Fear for safety/Use of excessive force by security forces (AI Index: AFR 25/006/2001)
  • Ethiopia: Freedom of expression and association under attack (AI Index: AFR 25/012/2001)

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