Amnesty International, International Secretariat

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Accountability past and present: Human rights in transition



The Ethiopian authorities are prosecuting officials of the former government for gross human rights violations, but the Transitional Government has not acted with equal determination against abuses by its own forces.

The Transitional Government was established in 1991 after 17 years of brutally repressive rule. The general election scheduled for May 1995 marks the end of the four- year transition period.

The Transitional Government took on the crucial task of bringing to justice officials of the former government responsible for gross human rights violations. The trials have started after long delays and will continue for some years. If they are fair and do not result in executions -- which are themselves violations of human rights -- they will send a message to all perpetrators of human rights violations that they cannot expect impunity and will be held accountable for their actions.

However, the transitional period has also seen many new abuses of human rights. Thousands of opponents of the Transitional Government were detained without charge or trial between 1992 and 1994. The majority have now been released but there are still hundreds of political detainees. Some political prisoners have possibly been given unfair trials; as more detainees are being brought to court this is of growing concern. Some detainees are prisoners of conscience, including journalists and members of non-violent opposition parties.

Dozens of government opponents have "disappeared". People have been held in secret detention centres, and torture has been inflicted on suspected members of opposition groups. A number of defenceless civilians have been shot dead by the security forces. Abuses have also been committed by armed opposition groups.

The Transitional Government has not been consistent in its approach to accountability for human rights abuses. It has not done enough to stop and prevent human rights violations, especially in the context of the Oromo Liberation Front's continuing armed opposition. The international community too has paid insufficient attention to continuing reports of violations. The important message of the trials of former officials will be undermined unless decisive action is taken to stop human rights violations perpetrated by those in power now.

This report is about the human rights record of President Meles Zenawi's four-year Transitional Government. It is based on extensive research by Amnesty International and the outcome of Amnesty International's latest talks with the Ethiopian government in February 1995. The meetings discussed a detailed memorandum submitted by Amnesty International to the government three months earlier and the report incorporates the government's response.

The report documents human rights violations in Ethiopia since 1991, including the imprisonment of non-violent critics of the government; detentions without charge or trial of other government opponents, some of whom were involved in violent opposition; "disappearances"; torture; and political killings by the security forces and by opposition groups.

It also describes the first stages of the trials of officials of the former Dergue and Workers Party of Ethiopia governments headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam between 1974 and 1991.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations for urgent action to end and prevent human rights violations. The Ethiopian government should be more open and consistent in its approach to human rights by acknowledging and redressing violations. It should look more closely at its own record and deal with present as well as past abuses.

This summarizes a 58-page document (23,360 words), Ethiopia: Accountability past and present: human rights in transition (AI Index: AFR 25/06/95), issued by Amnesty International in April 1995. Anyone wanting further details or to take action on this issue should consult the full document.


AI INDEX: AFR 25/08/95


While the Ethiopian government has been praised for prosecuting former government officials on human rights charges, this initiative will be undermined unless the authorities stop abuses by their own forces.

"The authorities should openly acknowledge and deal with violations going on now," Amnesty International said. "The important message of the ongoing trials into past violations is that the perpetrators will not get away with their crimes -- and that message also needs to be sent to the forces committing violations today."

The human rights organization is urging the outgoing Transitional Government -- and the new government to be formed after next month's elections -- to act firmly to end and prevent

In the run-up to those elections on 7 May Amnesty International is appealing to all parties participating -- although an opposition boycott seems likely -- to support the organization's human rights recommendations aimed at developing safeguards against new violations. It is asking election observers to watch for any abuses of human rights, report them and press for prompt remedies.

The human rights organization made its appeal as it published a 58-page report today on the human rights record of President Meles Zenawi's Transitional Government which assumed power in 1991.

The report reviews the first stages of the trial of former members of the military government (Dergue) which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Forty- eight people face the death penalty for genocide and crimes against humanity. Ex-President Zimbabwe, is being tried in absentia.

More than 1,700 other detainees, mostly held since 1991, have yet to be charged and it is expected that the trials could last for years. Amnesty International is concerned that the trials should be fair and that the courts should not hand down death sentences -- themselves a violation of human rights.

The reports also highlights violations committed under the Transitional Government. Thousands of government opponents were detained without charge or trial between 1992 and 1994, mostly in the context of the ongoing conflict with the Oromo Liberation Front. While the majority have now been released, several hundreds remain in political detention.

Some of the detainees are prisoners of conscience who have been jailed for the expression of their political opinions, including journalists and members of non- violent opposition parties. Political prisoners are more often being taken to court now but Amnesty International is concerned at the failure of some trials to meet international standards of fairness.

Dozens of government opponents have "disappeared", some apparently ending up in secret detention centres. Detainees suspected of belonging to opposition groups have told Amnesty International about being tortured.

In addition a number of defenceless civilians have been shot dead by the security forces and abuses have also been committed by certain armed opposition groups.

In February 1995, an Amnesty International delegation visited Ethiopia to discuss its concerns with the government. Ethiopian officials rejected many of the organization's criticisms and claimed its research was politically-biased. Testimonies of torture and cases of "disappearances" were "mostly fabricated", they alleged.

"We have listened to their replies and reviewed the evidence but we reject charges of bias and remain convinced that human rights violations are continuing in Ethiopia," Amnesty International said. "The serious concerns we identify in this report need to be considered on their own merits."

Among other recommendations, the organization is calling for impartial inquiries into alleged "disappearances", torture and political killings by the Ethiopian security forces.



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