An new detailed and comprehensive report by Amnesty International, the London based watchdog, reveals that the crackdown on free speech by Ethiopian authorities has even more intensified since March 2011.
According to the Report, since March 2011, at least 108 opposition party members and six journalists have been arrested in Ethiopia for alleged involvement with various proscribed terrorist groups. By November, 107 of the detainees had been charged with crimes under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Criminal Code. A further six journalists, two opposition party members and one human rights defender, all living in exile, were charged in absentia. Trials in all these cases have begun, and are ongoing at time of writing.
Amnesty International believes that the prolonged series of arrests and prosecutions indicates systematic use of the law and the pretext of counter-terrorism by the Ethiopian government to silence people who criticise or question their actions and policies, especially opposition politicians and the independent media. Whilst these groups have often been arrested and prosecuted in the past, the large numbers of arrests indicates an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression in 2011.
Many of those arrested during 2011 have been vocal in their commentary on national politics and in criticising government practise, in the course of their legitimate roles as journalists and opposition politicians. As a result, many had been harassed by state actors over a long period, and in some cases arrested and prosecuted. Many arrests in 2011 came in the days immediately after individuals publicly criticised the government, were involved in public calls for reform, applied for permission to hold demonstrations at a time when the government feared large-scale protests taking place, or attempted to conduct investigative journalism in a region of Ethiopia to which the government severely restricts access.
Much of the evidence against those charged, and listed in the charge sheets, involves items and activities which do not appear to amount to terrorism or criminal wrongdoing. Rather, many items of evidence cited appear to be illustrations of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, acting peacefully and legitimately as journalists or members of opposition parties, and which should not be the subject of criminal sanctions. Evidence cited includes articles written by the defendants criticising the government or journalistic reporting on calls for peaceful protest. In relation to some of the charges, it appears that the overly broad definitions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation are being used to prosecute individuals for any display of dissent. Calls for peaceful protest are being interpreted as acts of terrorism.
The trials of these individuals have become highly politicised due to the interest of, and statements made by, senior members of the government, including by the Prime Minister, who declared in the national parliament that all the defendants are guilty. Amnesty International is concerned that these comments could exert political pressure on the courts. These comments could also violate the right of the defendants to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
All 114 opposition members and journalists arrested during 2011 were initially detained at Maikelawi detention centre, where they were denied the rights accorded to detainees under Ethiopian and international law. All were denied access to lawyers and family members during the initial stages of their detention, increasing their risk of being subjected to other human rights violations. Many of the detainees complained, including in court, that they experienced torture and other ill-treatment during their detention and interrogation in Maikelawi. According to available information, the court has not ordered an investigation into any of the complaints of torture made by defendants, nor have the authorities indicated any intention of conducting investigations. Many of the detainees were reportedly forced to sign confessions or forced to acknowledge ownership or association by signing items of seemingly incriminating evidence.
Amnesty International believes that all the journalists and opposition members cited in this report were arrested primarily because of their legitimate and peaceful criticism of the government, and that the high level of political interest in the cases increases the risk that the independence of the judicial process will be subverted. The human rights violations widely reported to have taken place during pre-trial detention, and already raised in court several times with no result, raise further concerns that these individuals will not receive a fair trial and that they will be convicted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. It is essential, therefore, that all six trials mentioned in this report are systematically monitored for their compliance with international fair trial standards. In the absence of a functioning civil society in a position to undertake trial monitoring, Amnesty International is calling on the representatives of the international community in Addis Ababa to take up the role of monitoring the trials.
The Prime Minister expressed an intention to arrest more members of the political opposition, indicating that the crackdown is not yet over and, indeed, the arrests continue. In the first week of December Amnesty International received reports that at least 135 people had been arrested across Oromia, including members and supporters of the Oromo People’s Congress and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement political parties.
These arrests, prosecutions and ongoing high level of government interest and involvement have had a wider impact on the exercise of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. They send a chilling message to other opposition politicians, journalists and anybody who has concerns about the policies and actions of their government to keep quiet, ask no questions or risk arrest. Several journalists and opposition members have already fled the country as a result.
It appears that the Ethiopian government is determined to destroy the few remaining traces of free expression in the country. There is increasingly no space in Ethiopia for individuals and publications who hold different opinions, represent different political parties or attempt to provide independent commentary on political developments.
To read the entire Report click on the title above.