Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2006 - Ethiopia

Arbitrary detentions and judicial proceedings against several human rights defenders and civil society representatives60

In the aftermath of the May 15, 2005 parliamentary elections and of the announced victory of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), fierce confrontations between the police and young demonstrators who contested the validity of the poll led to violent crackdowns in the main Ethiopian cities, in particular Addis Ababa, Gondar, Awassa, Dessie and Nazreth, in June and November 2005.

Although most of the thousands of people arrested in November 2005 were subsequently released, 131 persons were denied bail and formally charged on December 21, 2005 with crimes including "conspiracy", "outrage against the Constitution", "inciting, organising and leading armed rebellion", "high treason" and "genocide", all these charges being liable to sentences ranging from 25 years' imprisonment to death penalty.

The charges

In late December 2006, three human rights defenders remained detained among the 131 accused, the majority of whom are political opponents and journalists. These three persons are: Mr. Kassahun Kebede, chairman of the Addis Ababa branch of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), Mr. Daniel Bekele, a lawyer and programme manager for ActionAid-Ethiopia, and Mr. Netsanet Demissie, a lawyer, founder and president of the Organisation for Social Justice in Ethiopia (OSJE).

Mr. Kebede was arrested on November 1, 2005 when the police also searched ETA headquarters. On the same day, Mr. Bekele was arrested at his home without a warrant. On November 8, 2005, Mr. Netsanet Demissie handed himself in to the police as soon as he heard that an arrest warrant had been issued against him. All three have since been detained at Kaliti prison, in Addis Ababa, and were formally charged with "outrage against constitutional order" (Articles 31(1) (a) and (b), 38, 34, 27(1) and 238(2) of the 2005 Criminal Code) on December 21, 2005.

Although none of them are politically affiliated, all three defenders are accused of using their respective associations to fulfil political agendas, supporting the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD, main opposition party) and attempting to overthrow the government by force. Indeed, their bill of indictment states that Messrs. Kebede, Bekele and Demissie "[made] the associations they represent function beyond their fundamental mandate and objectives and [used] them as instruments for their crime". They further allegedly "mobilised and provided leadership to members of their associations in support of mutinous acts by passing decisions and press releases in the name of their associations (...), and instigated and supported the youth to participate in mutinous acts".

Furthermore, Mr. Taye Woldesmiate, former ETA chairman, and Mr. Kifle Mulat, president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA), also face the same charges and are being tried in their absence.

Messrs. Bekele and Demissie were particularly active in the establishment of the Civil Society Peace Plan Initiative, which was formed by associations in an attempt to foster political dialogue in the aftermath of the contested results of the May 15, 2005 elections.

Mr. Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, founder and former president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), now a prominent CUD member who was also arrested on November 1, 2005, currently faces all seven above-mentioned charges.

Denial of provisional release

On January 4, 2006, the Federal High Court dismissed the application for their provisional release filed by Messrs. Kebede, Bekele and Demissie in November 2005. The Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court upheld this decision on March 10, 2006.

The three defenders appealed against this decision to the Cassation Bench of the Federal Supreme Court on June 5, 2006. Their appeal was dismissed on August 3, 2006, when the Court argued that the charges pending against them were "serious" and hence not subject to bail.

Concerns about the due process of the trial

The trial of the 111 defendants61 began on May 2, 2006 before the Second Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court.

On July 19, 2006, the Public Prosecutor began to present documentary evidence and filed a request to be allowed to present additional materials. Messrs. Kebede, Bekele and Demissie objected to this request as well as to the admissibility of the evidence presented by the Prosecution.

On August 4, 2006, the Court adjourned the hearing until October 5, 2006; on that date, a judicial observation mission mandated by the Observatory was permitted to attend the trial.

The Court dismissed the three defendants' objections on October 13, 2006.

When the trial resumed on November 6, 2006, Messrs. Bekele and Demissie complained that they had been prevented from seeing each other in order to prepare their case since November 3, 2006.

Ongoing harassment of EHRCO members62

Ethiopian organisations that denounced the gross human rights violations committed during the June and November 2005 crackdowns (extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, harassment, forced disappearances etc.), in particular the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and its members, were particularly targeted by the authorities following the November 1 and 2, 2005 demonstrations.

Indeed, several EHRCO members were forced to cease their human rights activities in 2006, and some to flee the country after facing serious threats in late 2005, as was the case of Messrs. Taddesse Chernet, Wondimagegn Gashu, Yared Hailemariam and Birhanu Tsegu Adenew.

Judicial proceedings against Messrs. Seifu Degu, Tesfawe Bekele and Chane Kebede

By the end of 2006, the judicial proceedings initiated in June 2005 against Messrs. Tesfawe Bekele and Seifu Degu, both teachers and president and vice-president respectively of the EHRCO branch in Dessae, and Mr. Chane Kebede, a teacher and EHRCO member, were still pending. The next hearing was scheduled for January 30, 2007.

On June 14, 2005, the three men were arrested at Dessae School and taken to the municipal prison. Mr. Bekele and Mr. Degu had been mandated by EHRCO to monitor the election process. All three were charged with "trying to overthrow the legitimate government by force" and released on bail on June 23, 2005 pending trial.

Furthermore, Mr. Seifu Degu and Messrs. Mekonen Bezu and Reta Chanie, both teachers and EHRCO members who turned themselves over to the police after their wives had been arrested in their stead, were subsequently arrested again on November 2, 2005. All three were released without charge on December 19, 2005.

Mr. Seifu Degu was forced to renounce to his activities with EHRCO owing to repeated threats and pressures by the Dessae authorities in 2006.

Release of Ms. Mulunesh Abebayehu Teklewold

Ms. Mulunesh Abebayehu Teklewold, a teacher and a member of EHRCO and of the Addis Ababa branch of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), was released without charge on June 9, 2006.

Ms. Abebayehu Teklewold had been arrested at her workplace, at Kelemworke School in Addis Ababa, on November 9, 2005, and detained in Kaliti prison.

Continued harassment of Ms. Elfinesh Demissie

Ms. Elfinesh Demissie, a teacher and former member of EHRCO executive committee, was summoned for questioning by security services in late August 2006. She was briefly detained before being released on bail. Ms. Demissie's arrest was most likely linked to her activities with EHRCO as well as her outspoken denunciations of the human rights abuses committed by the authorities in November 2005.

As of the end of 2006, no additional information had been made available regarding possible judicial proceedings against her.

In the course of the year, Ms. Demissie was regularly threatened with professional sanctions by the directors of the school in which she teaches.

Ongoing harassment of ETA and its members63

Judicial proceedings against ETA

In the early 1990s, as a result of government interference and pressures, a pro-governmental ETA was set up in order to replace the independent ETA that was created in 1949. In 1993, the independent ETA's accounts were frozen under the pretext that the association was not registered, while its leaders were arbitrarily arrested and detained, and some of them murdered. As a consequence, two organisations bearing the same name are currently in operation.

On January 30, 2004, the premises of the independent ETA were sealed off as it was alleged that the association was operating without a valid registration certificate. On December 15, 2004 however, the Federal High Court ruled that the independent ETA was the legitimate organisation and ordered that its accounts be unfrozen and its offices unsealed.

The government ignored this decision and the surrogate ETA lodged an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court on December 25, 2004.

On March 30, 2006, the Federal High Court ordered the independent ETA to hand over all its assets and properties to the surrogate association.

On November 20, 2006, following the appeal lodged by the independent organisation, the Supreme Court ruled this decision null and void, arguing that the Federal High Court had failed to address the main issues of the dispute. The case was thus sent back to the High Court to properly investigate the merits of the case.

No further date of hearing was scheduled by the end of 2006.

ETA general assembly disrupted

On April 30, 2006, army special forces surrounded the building where the independent ETA was due to hold its special general assembly. Participants were forced to vacate the premises, and several of them were arrested and deprived of their IDs and documents. All of the persons arrested were released without charge later that day.

The general assembly was then re-scheduled for August 30 and September 1, 2006. On this occasion, the ETA duly informed all relevant authorities of the event, which was to be held at the headquarters of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions. It was estimated that it would gather over 300 ETA delegates and representatives of international organisations.

On August 30, 2006, the assembly opened without any interference by the authorities. A few hours later, however, police forces and security services surrounded the building, forcibly dispersed the participants and terminated the event.

On September 11, 2006, the ETA and Education International (EI), to which the association is affiliated, submitted a complaint to the ILO Commitee on Freedom of Association in order to denounce the repeated obstructions to the holding of the ETA general assembly.

Arbitrary detention of Messrs. Wasihun Melese and Anteneh Getnet64

In early 2006, Mr. Anteneh Getnet, a teacher and an ETA member, was illegally dismissed from his position in an Addis Ababa school, allegedly because of his ETA membership.

In addition, on May 1, 2006, Mr. Getnet was abducted by members of security services who drove him outside of the capital, and severely beat him before leaving him to die in a forest. Mr. Getnet ultimately regained consciousness and managed to seek help in a village nearby.

By the end of 2006, he still suffered from significant health problems as a result of this attack, and had been unable to resume teaching.

Furthermore, on September 23, 2006, Mr. Wasihun Melese, a teacher and a member of the ETA branch in Addis Ababa, was arrested at his home by members of the security services. Mr. Melese, who had been elected to the national executive board of the independent ETA on August 26, 2006, was then taken to the police Central Investigation Bureau (known as Maekelawi), in Addis Ababa.

A few hours later, Mr. Getnet was also arrested by three plainclothes police officers after taking part in a meeting held at the ETA headquarters in Addis Ababa. Mr. Getnet was also taken to Maekelawi.

On September 25, 2006, Messrs. Melese and Getnet appeared before the Addis Ababa Court, which remanded them in custody for an additional two weeks, following a request by the police. Although not formally charged, they were to appear again before the Court on October 9, 2006.

They were finally released on bail on October 4, 2006; however, the police informed them that they could be summoned again for further investigation.

As of the end of 2006, none of them had been officially charged. Their arrest and detention were likely to have been ordered as reprisals for the joint complaint submitted by the ETA and EI on September 11, 2006.

New wave of arrests against ETA members

On December 14, 2006, Mr. Tilahun Ayalew, director of the ETA branch in the Bahir Dar region (in the northwest of the country), was arrested by security officers while on his way home.

A few days later, Mr. Ayalew was remanded in custody and transferred to Maekelawi, where he was allegedly detained incommunicado and tortured.

In addition, Mr. Anteneh Getnet65 was also arrested on December 29, 2006 and placed in detention in Maekelawi.

On January 1, 2007, both Messrs. Ayalew and Getnet appeared before the Lideta District Court, in Addis Ababa. The Court remanded them in custody without charge for an additional two weeks and postponed the hearing until January 15, 2007.

Lastly, security services arrested Mr. Meqcha Mengistu, head of the ETA branch in the East Gojam region, on December 15, 2006.

As of the end of 2006, no further information was available about his situation or place of detention.

Arbitrary arrest and detention of Ms. Yalemzewd Bekele66

Ms. Yalemzewd Bekele, a lawyer working for the European Commission Delegation in Addis Ababa, and a volunteer for the Ethiopian Women Lawyers' Association (EWLA), who has been involved in several human rights and civil society projects, was arrested on October 19, 2006 in the border town of Moyale (on the Kenyan border).

Ms. Bekele was suspected by the authorities of disseminating a calendar issued by the CUD on September 11, 2006, on the Ethiopian New Year's Eve, calling for 14 different types of non-violent actions of civil disobedience. A special government task force was subsequently established to investigate the publication and distribution of this document, leading to a new wave of arrests. Ms. Bekele was as such reported to be considered by the security forces as a "suspect of heavy crime".

Ms. Bekele was informed that an arrest warrant had been issued against her on October 12, 2006 and she attempted to flee the country on October 19. On the same day, two European diplomats and colleagues of Ms. Bekele, Messrs. Bjoern Jonsson and Enrico Sborgi, were arrested while on their way back to Addis Ababa, after dropping her in Moyale. The two men were immediately expelled from the country. Mr. Fassil Assefa, a friend of Ms. Bekele, was also arrested at his hotel in Moyale on October 19, 2006.

On October 21, 2006, Ms. Bekele was remanded in custody for another five days by the Moyale Court and taken to the Moyale police station.

Ms. Bekele and Mr. Assefa were subsequently transferred to Addis Ababa central prison on October 25, 2006. Ms. Bekele was released without charge on October 26, 2006; Mr. Assefa is believed to have been freed on the same day.

Hindrances to the publication of the report of the Parliamentary Investigation Commission on the November 2005 events67

In December 2005, the Ethiopian Parliament appointed an 11member Commission tasked with leading an independent inquiry into the June and November 2005 violent crackdowns and determining if security forces had resorted to excessive use of force.

The Commission was initially due to release its report in March 2006. On April 25, 2006 however, five of its members were replaced, allegedly on grounds of medical difficulties or work burden.

In early July 2006, shortly before completing their report, the members of the Commission held an internal vote and ruled eight against two (and one abstention) that the security forces had used excessive force directly resulting in the killing of 193 people including 40 teenagers – i.e. five times the official death toll.

According to the deputy chairperson of the Commission, Mr. Wolde-Michael, the inquiry team came under intense pressure once the ruling party learnt of its findings. Electricity to their offices, which had been placed under tight police surveillance, was reportedly cut off and the Prime Minister Mr. Meles Zenawi allegedly summoned the Commission members a few days before the report was due to be released to ask them to reverse their findings.

On July 31, 2006, the president of the Commission, Mr. Fire-Hiwot, resigned from his position and left the country in September 2006.

Mr. Wolde-Michael also fled in exile in September 2006 following alleged death threats. He disseminated the supposed initial report of the Commission to several international press agencies. The Minister for Information, Mr. Bereket Simon, dismissed the findings of this "leaked" report, which notably concluded that security officers had used excessive force, as "rubbish" and "mere rumours".

However, the official version of the report was presented before the Parliament on October 21, 2006 and confirmed that at least 193 people were killed in the June and November 2005 riots. Although this report, which was clearly a revised version of the original, asserted that the government's response "manifest[ed] some weaknesses and mistakes" and that "respect for human rights was not strictly consistent with the Constitution", the Commission concluded that "the actions taken by the security forces to control the violence was a legal and necessary step to protect the nascent system of government".

[Refworld note: This report as posted on the FIDH website (www.fidh.org) was in pdf format with country chapters run together by region. Footnote numbers have been retained here, so do not necessarily begin at 1.]

60. See Annual Report 2005, Open Letter to Ethiopian authorities, January 5, 2006, and Judicial Observation Missions Report, Ethiopia: The Situation of Human Rights Defenders from Bad to Worse, December 2006.

61. In March 2006, 20 persons, mostly journalists, were discharged and released. By the end of 2006, 76 individuals and 10 legal persons (political opposition parties and several newspapers) were heard by the Court, 25 others being tried in absentia.

62. See Annual Report 2005.

63. Idem.

64. See Education International (EI).

65. See above.

66. See Urgent Appeals ETH 001/1006/OBS 125 and 125.1.

67. See Judicial Observation Missions Report mentioned above.


This 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.