Covering events from January - December 2003

Torture, arbitrary detention and excessive use of force by police were among many human rights violations reported. Journalists in the private media were at risk of arrest and prosecution. Several thousand people remained in long-term detention without charge or trial on suspicion of supporting armed opposition groups. Prison conditions were harsh and many prisoners were held incommunicado or were feared to have "disappeared" in secret prisons. The long series of trials continued of members of the former Dergue government on charges including genocide. Some trials were concluded and the first death sentences against defendants were imposed. There were death sentences in ordinary criminal trials too. No executions were reported during the year.


Thirteen million of Ethiopia's 70 million population were dependent on food aid as a result of drought.

The National Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman's office established in law in 2000 were not yet set up. Around 75,000 Ethiopian "illegal immigrants" in Djibouti were swiftly and harshly deported back to Ethiopia by the Djibouti government in September.

Some 3,000 others, including asylum-seekers, who feared persecution because of their political opinions or for allegedly supporting the armed opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), were sent to a makeshift rural refugee camp in Djibouti and allowed access to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for consideration of their asylum claims.

Ethiopia continued to face armed opposition from the OLF in the Oromia region and in the Somali region from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), allied to the OLF and Al-Itihad Al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity). The OLF denied government accusations of bombing the Djibouti rail link in September.

There were inter-communal conflicts in several areas, related in some cases to federal administrative boundary changes, which resulted in a number of deaths.

Preparations started for the 2005 parliamentary elections. A new coalition of 15 groups inside and outside Ethiopia, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, was formed in the USA in August. The coalition was among a group of opposition parties that called for measures to guarantee free and fair elections.

Aftermath of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea

In late 2003 a new war with Eritrea threatened, raising fears of a return to the large-scale military casualties and human rights abuses of the 1998-2000 war. Although both sides declared peaceful intentions, Ethiopia rejected the April 2002 ruling of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission set up under the peace accord, despite pressure from the UN Security Council. The Commission had concluded that the contested town of Badme was Eritrean territory. This indefinitely delayed demarcation of the border. The Security Council again extended the UN Military Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which administered a buffer zone.

In May the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission found that both sides were liable for claims under the Geneva Conventions that prisoners of war were ill-treated. Ethiopia was found to have ill-treated Eritrean prisoners. The Commission later began investigations into treatment of civilians and property claims.

In the uneasy post-war peace, Ethiopia supported the armed opposition Eritrean National Alliance (ENA), while Eritrea continued to host Ethiopian armed opposition groups. In another regional conflict, Ethiopia backed factions in the Somalia Reconciliation and Restoration Council which opposed the Transitional National Government in Somalia supported by Eritrea.

Freedom of the media

The vigorous and highly critical private press continued to be a target for government repression. Dozens of journalists remained free on bond after being arrested in recent years but none was brought to trial in 2003.

A draft new press law threatened even greater restrictions on the media than its 1993 predecessor, which was used to imprison hundreds of journalists. The draft law was publicly debated and workshops were held involving government and private media, international consultants employed by the government and international media groups.

In November the Ministry of Justice closed down the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA), saying it had failed to apply for renewal of its licence and had not submitted audited records. The EFJA said action was taken against it for leading opposition to the proposed press law.

  • In October Araya Tesfamariam of The Reporter newspaper was severely beaten and left for dead by men in police uniform, reportedly after he received warnings from security officers and was accused of writing articles criticizing the government.

Justice and rule of law

Reports continued to be received of arrests of government opponents; arbitrary and indefinite detention without charge or trial; police shootings of criminal suspects with impunity; torture and illtreatment of prisoners; detentions of government opponents suspected of links with armed opposition; and "disappearances" among detainees allegedly at risk of torture in secret detention centres.

The government began a series of legislative and other reforms to improve the administration of justice, with international assistance. The problems included long court delays; insufficient trained and competent judges; weak independence of the judiciary; lack of an effective, independent bar association; and poor access to justice, particularly for women.

  • In early January, dozens of detained members of a church group, which was opposed to the official Ethiopian Orthodox Church leadership of the Lideta Church in the capital, Addis Ababa, were released on bond. They had been among several hundreds arrested in late December 2002 and tortured at Kolfe police training camp. Most had been freed with a warning. In February up to 100 other church dissidents were taken to Kolfe police camp, beaten and made to crawl across stones, sleep in the open and do harsh physical exercises. They were taken to court after two days and released on bond. None was brought to trial. No outcome was announced of government investigations into police killings of over 200 demonstrators in 2002 in protests across the country.

Government opponents in Teppi and Awassa were still reportedly detained without charge or trial, while police, soldiers and local administrative officials allegedly responsible for unlawful killings seemed to enjoy impunity.

  • On 12 December hundreds of members of the Anywaa (or Anuak) ethnic group were killed by mobs in and around Gambela town in the southwest. Civil servants, students, children and farmers were indiscriminately targeted on account of their ethnicity in reprisal for the murder of eight men – three government refugee officials, a police officer and four civilians – who were travelling nearby in a UN vehicle.

The men were allegedly killed by an Anywaa gang with a grievance against the authorities. The bodies were reportedly displayed in Gambela, leading to rioting by members of the Amhara, Tigrayan, Oromo and other groups,who killed hundreds of Anywaa people and burned down homes. Over 15,000 survivors fled across the Sudan border. Police and soldiers were reportedly slow to stop the killings, and some allegedly took part in the massacre. By the end of the year, the government had not set up an independent inquiry. It stated that about 60 people had been killed, while other sources estimated the number to be at least 300.

In the zones of armed conflict, as well as in urban areas, human rights abuses against civilians suspected of links with rebels were widely alleged, although difficult to verify. In the conflict in the Oromia region, members of the Oromo ethnic group ("nationality") risked secret detention and torture. Unlawful arrests and ill-treatment were reported of opposition supporters in the Amhara and Southern regions, particularly of members of the All-Ethiopia Unity Party (formerly the All-Amhara People's Organization) and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Coalition.

Political prisoners were believed to number several thousands, some held for several years without charge or trial, although there were some releases through judicial review reported during the year. Held in many regions and prisons, many prisoners had access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

  • There was still no information about Amanti Abdissa, a former relief agency worker who was arrested in Addis Ababa in August 2000 and reportedly accused of links with the OLF, then later "disappeared" in custody. A group trial continued of 19 Oromos arrested in 1997 for alleged conspiracy with the OLF. Dinkenesh Deressa Kitila, a Total Oil company manager arrested in June 2002, was added to the defendants.

Human rights defenders

The trial of human rights defenders Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, Chair of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and Berhanu Nega, Chair of the Ethiopian Economic Association, was again adjourned. Falsely accused of instigating violence at demonstrations at Addis Ababa University in April 2001, they had been provisionally released on bond.

Dergue trials

The trial continued of 33 senior officials of the former government of Mengistu Hailemariam for "genocide", murder, torture and other crimes. The Zimbabwean government continued to refuse to extradite former President Mengistu to face trial. Trials also continued of up to 1,000 less senior officials accused of killing members of former Emperor Haileselassie's government and thousands of "anti-revolutionaries" during the government's "Red Terror" atrocities of 1977-1978. According to official figures in mid-2003, since the trials began in 1994, 1,017 defendants had been tried, 552 had been convicted, and 3,426 were still awaiting trial. During 2003, six were sentenced to death and others to prison terms.

Violence against women

Female genital mutilation continued to be widely practised on women and girls in many regions, despite public education programs by the government and non-governmental organizations. Women's organizations worked to improve women's access to justice and campaigned against domestic violence, rape and the forced marriage of girls where the law allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victim.

Death penalty

Six defendants were sentenced to death in different Dergue trials during 2003. They were convicted of killings under former President Mengistu, including of the "disappeared" Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Tewoflos, in 1978. No appeals had been heard by the end of 2003. The only previous death sentences in these trials had been imposed in absentia. Almost all defendants faced a possible death penalty.

Several death sentences were also passed by ordinary criminal courts. No executions were reported.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council launched a campaign against the death penalty.

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