US State Department Report on Human Rights in Ethiopia (1995)


After a lengthy civil war, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991 and, together with other groups active in the anti-Mengistu struggle, adopted the National Charter which established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). The TGE, headed by President Meles Zenawi, has been responsible for overseeing the transition to multiparty democracy. The Council of Representatives, the interim quasi-legislature, is controlled by the four constituent parties of the EPRDF. The EPRDF and by extension the TGE are dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The ascendance of Tigrayans and a policy of promoting ethnic identity and regionalism have engendered animosity from Amharas, who have traditionally held centralized power in Ethiopia.

The Government was consistent and forceful in its verbal commitment to respect human rights, but serious problems remain. The judicial system remains weak, understaffed, and at times subject to political influence. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed a number of extrajudicial killings and beat or otherwise physically abused criminal suspects and detainees, although these practices do not appear to be widespread. The Government seldom tried, convicted, and appropriately punished security force members and police who committed such abuses. The Government harassed and detained without charge numerous journalists and a number of opposition party members, holding some for as long as several months. In September the authorities arrested approximately 500 members of the All- Amhara People's Organization (AAPO) on charges of unlawful assembly. Numerous reports alleged that EPRDF forces, opposition separatists, and Islamic militias all committed humanitarian violations, including the summary execution of civilians, in continued clashes in the eastern parts of the country. The TGE's sometimes heavyhanded tactics and an opposition boycott ensured an EPRDF victory in the June Constituent Assembly elections. Discrimination and violence against women and abuse of children continued to be serious problems.

However, the Government took a number of steps to improve its human rights practices. It released several thousand persons previously detained without charge and closed the camps in which they were confined. It undertook efforts to establish a nonpolitical and nationally representative military. In June the Government conducted a procedurally fair election in which opposition groups were allowed access to government-owned broadcast media, and on several occasions opposition groups staged rallies without interference.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

According to informed sources, local and regional officials of the security services committed more than 20 extrajudicial killings in 1994. In at least one case thought to be politically motivated, in August government security officers assassinated the deputy mayor of Gode. According to credible reports, in July EPRDF soldiers fired at five unarmed young men in Debre Zeit, killing two and wounding two others. At year's end, the Government had not begun a public investigation of either of these incidents or punished those responsible.

In July Alebatchew Goji died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody in the town of Orghessa, near Dessie. While the exact circumstances of his death were unknown, Alebatchew had been detained and interrogated for 6 days about his fugitive uncle's whereabouts. After Alebatchew's death, the police displayed his body in public before instructing his father to retrieve the body for burial. There is no evidence that government authorities investigated this incident.

There were numerous unconfirmed reports of summary executions of civilians by government and antigovernment forces during clashes in the eastern "Somali" region which includes the Ogaden. Groups involved in these clashes include the EPRDF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the Islamic fundamentalist group "Al-Ittihad Al- Islami." There was no evidence to support occasional rumors of "killing squads."

b. Disappearance

The independent press published numerous accounts of alleged disappearances throughout the year. In moost cases, security forces arrested and held these persons incommunicado for several weeks before evenutally releasing them without charge. For example, after the OLF abducted and held a British CARE international employee for a week, an Ethiopian CARE employee subsequently disappeared. Despite repeated denials that he was in police custody, the local EPRDF office released him 6 days later.

However, there was at least one unconfirmed report in which the whereabouts of a person allegedly last seen in police custody was unknown at year's end. According to international human rights groups, in May unidentified security forces reportedly picked up Mustafa Idris, a telecommunications worker and OLF supporter, in Addis Ababa. Previously detained by the Mengistu regime for 10 years, Mustafa had not been traced to any police station, and his whereabouts were unknown.

Human rights groups continued to charge that the whereabouts of dozens of people the TGE arrested when it took power remained unknown. In response, the TGE claimed that some of the alleged missing were among the estimated 1,700 persons in detention awaiting trial for crimes committed against the civilian population during the Mengistu regime.

c. Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The National Charter and new Constitution prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment. Nevertheless, there were credible reports that security officials sometimes beat and otherwise mistreated detainees. However, instances of torture were rare. A reported form of mistreatment is tying a victim's upper arms behind his or her back with electrical wire, occasionally resulting in permanent damage to the limbs. According to some victims and one security official, mock executions are occasionally staged. In August EPRDF security officials took an opposition supporter to an unmarked house in Addis Ababa and beat and verbally insulted him for several hours. The victim was eventually taken to a police station. Police officers refused an instruction from the EPRDF officials to imprison the victim and then offered to take the victim to a hospital. The Government did not publicly investigate or punish those responsible.

There were credible reports that EPRDF officials sometimes use unmarked homes as sites for the temporary detention and interrogation of political opponents. However, there is no evidence to support allegations about the existence of a network of secret detention or interrogation facilities. The Government has agreed to allow international access to any area or facility suspected of being used in this manner.

In September prison officials shaved the heads of more than 250 supporters of the AAPO who had been detained on September 20 for assembling without a permit. None of the detainees had yet been charged with a crime, and it appeared that the act was designed to humiliate and intimidate the AAPO supporters (see Section 1.e.).

The Government took steps to improve prison conditions. Although prison conditions are acceptable by local standards and are not life-threatening, overcrowding is a serious problem. Prisoners are often allocated less than 2 square meters of space in a room which may contain from 8 to 200 people. Prisoners typically receive adequate food, often supplied by relatives on the outside. Female prisoners are kept separately from men and receive generally equal treatment. Rape does not appear to be a problem in prisons.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The National Charter, the new Constitution, and both the Criminal and Civil Codes prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Under the Criminal Procedure Code, any person detained must be charged and informed of the charges within 48 hours and, in most cases, be offered release on bail. Those persons believed to have committed capital offenses, such as murder and treason, may be detained for 4 weeks while police conduct an investigation and for an additional 15 days while the prosecutor prepares the case against the suspect. In practice, people are often detained without a warrant, frequently not charged within 48 hours, and if released on bail, never recalled to court.

Throughout 1994 the Government continued to arrest and detain persons without charge. Although most often it detained people for short periods only, thousands of criminal suspects remained in detention without charge or trial at year's end. Many of these cases result from a severe shortage of judges, prosecutors, attorneys, clerks, and courthouses. The Southern Regional Supreme Court has only 5 judges, out of an authorized complement of 15. Late in the year, the Southern Region had a backlog of more than 5,000 cases dating back as far as 1991. The TGE began to address these problems by creating special judicial teams to reduce backlogs in key areas, which resulted in the release or arraignment of hundreds of detainees in Region 4. In December a special team of judicial officials reviewed prisoner files and released 220 detainees in the Southern People's Region, typically for lack of evidence.

In August local police detained 46 supporters of the newly formed Ethiopian National Democratic Party (ENDP) in Awassa and Dilla in the southern region, allegedly for planning violent activities and possession of unregistered firearms. The authorities eventually released all but two of the ENDP members (nine not until early December) for lack of evidence. In a separate incident, the TGE detained the president of Region 5 (Somali), Hassan Jiri, in Gode and Addis Ababa without charge for 55 days in connection with his refusal to step down. On September 11, Lemma Sidamo, acting vice-chairman of the Sidamo Liberation Movement, which the TGE accuses of engaging in armed insurrection, was removed from his residence by Addis Ababa police, acting on an arrest order from Sidamo Zone. No charges were ever brought against Lemma, who was held in seclusion in Awassa and the town of Yerga Alem until his release in mid-November. In December 1993, the authorities arrested eight leaders of opposition parties when they arrived in Addis Ababa to attend a "peace and reconciliation conference" organized by political opposition groups. They charged seven with supporting armed uprising against the State and other related offenses but dropped charges in February after the group members signed individual statements renouncing violence. All of the detainees had been released by mid-February, except for Abera Yemane-Ab, who remains in detention on suspicion of involvement in crimes against humanity committed during the Mengistu regime (see Section 1.e.).

Exile is illegal and not used as a means of political control. However, in May, at the behest of the Eritrean Government, the TGE arrested 26 Ethiopians for alleged involvement in activities of the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Command (ELF-RC), a group opposing the Eritrean Government. As an alternative to imprisonment or deportation to Eritrea, the Government permitted several of the ELF-RC members to seek asylum in Europe and allowed the others to remain in internal exile in southern Ethiopia.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The TGE continued to restructure the judiciary toward a decentralized federal system, featuring courts at the district (woreda), zone, and regional levels. The Central (federal) Supreme Court adjudicates cases involving federal law, transregional issues, and national security and hears both original and appeal cases. While the goal of a decentralized system may hold promise of bringing justice closer to the people, the reality is that the severe shortage of trained personnel in many regions, serious financial constraints, and the absence of a clear demarcation between central and regional jurisdictions combine to keep the judiciary weak.

Senior judicial officers acknowledge government pressure, noting that judges are sometimes instructed to treat EPRDF defendants leniently. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the exact opposite is true for cases involving members of the opposition. At least one judge claimed he was fired for exhibiting too much independence, and in another case a presiding high judge replaced one of two fellow judges to achieve a majority vote to deny bail to two AAPO detainees. At year's end, two regional judges remained in prison in the southern city of Jinka after being illegally dismissed by local authorities for issuing an unpopular decision. Officials in Jinka claimed, incorrectly, that regionalization gives them complete autonomy over local affairs, and they ignored release orders from the chairman of the Southern Region Supreme Court and from the vice chairman of the regional council.

In decentralizing the judiciary, the TGE also established in 1993 federal and regional Judicial Administrative Commissions (JAC's) which are empowered to help select and discipline judges. JAC's--which include the chairman of the relevant supreme court, representatives of the appropriate legislative council, local lawyers, prosecutors, and Justice Ministry officials--have begun to function, although their impact was mixed.

On October 25, the Special Prosecutor's Office (SPO) handed down long-awaited indictments against the first group of defendants to be tried for serious crimes, including for crimes against humanity during the "Red Terror" and forced resettlement and villagization, committed during the Mengistu dictatorship from 1974 to 1991. The SPO was established in 1992 to create an historical record of the abuses during the Mengistu government and to bring to justice those criminally responsible for human rights violations and corruption. The trial of the first 66 defendants began on December 13. In this first group, the Government is trying 21 of the 66 in absentia, including the former president, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, who is in exile in Zimbabwe. It may eventually charge and try more than 3,000 defendants in connection with these crimes; some government officials expect the trials to go on for 3 to 5 years. In 1994 the Government arrested 25 former Air Force personnel for having bombed civilian targets during the civil war. Over 1,600 suspects remained in detention without charge at year's end, some of whom have been detained for more than 3 years. The Government declared that the remaining detainees would be charged by July 1995.

Following a high profile trial, the Central High Court convicted and sentenced AAPO leader Asrat Woldeyes and four accomplices to imprisonment for 2 years for involvement in a 1993 meeting in Addis Ababa during which plans for armed activities against the TGE were allegedly discussed. In December the same court sentenced Asrat to prison for an additional 3 years for "incitement to war" in connection with a speech made at the provincial town of Debre Berhan in 1992. At year's end, Asrat also faced charges of involvement in a May 1994 prison break in Debre Berhan, during which several guards were killed. His confinement and trials received significant press attention and exacerbated tensions between the TGE and AAPO. In September, after protesting without a required permit outside the Central High Court, the authorities arrested approximately 500 AAPO supporters and eventually charged 250 with "public provocation" and "illegal assembly." They subsequently released all of these on bail; further court action remained pending at year's end.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law requires judicial search warrants, but government critics allege they are seldom used in practice. The TGE implemented a nationwide campaign to uncover and confiscate unregistered firearms. Government security officials conducted searches of private and commercial vehicles, as well as private homes. Leaders of political opposition groups claim their members have been singled out for illegal searches and often unfairly detained during this campaign. These charges were given additional credibility when 44 of 46 ENDP members, detained following accusations of illegal weapons possession in the Southern Ethiopian People's Region, were subsequently released without charge (see Section 1.d.). Many people allege they are under surveillance for expressing antigovernment views.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the National Charter, the 1992 Press Law, and the new Constitution provide for the right to free speech and press, the TGE restricted both of these freedoms on numerous occasions. People are generally free to discuss publicly any topic they choose, but those expressing anti-TGE views were vulnerable to government harassment. For example, police detained a person overnight for speaking about Asrat's case (see Section 1.e.) and forced him to sign a statement forswearing any future discussion of the professor. Press criticism of both the Government and the opposition is common. Opposition parties and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) were generally able to hold rallies or press conferences expressing anti-TGE views without apparent retribution.

The vast majority of Ethiopians outside Addis Ababa have no ready access to the print media. A small-circulation private press continued to operate in Addis Ababa despite the arrest of more than a dozen journalists for violations of the Press Law and Criminal Code. The Press Law is vague, and many journalists complain that it can be interpreted broadly to target journalists whom the Government dislikes. This often results in self-censorship. The clause most commonly invoked is the prohibition on dissemination of false information, which is often translated into "telling only one side of a story." Many journalists fall victim to this clause because of the refusal of virtually all government officials to speak to the private press, even to confirm or deny an allegation. Denial of entrance to private journalists at government press conferences further limits their access to information and undermines the TGE's affirmations of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy. However, some elements of the private press were irresponsible in their reporting of developments in the country.

The authorities detained a number of independent journalists and editors for long periods (as long as 4 months) without informing them of the charges they face. Many publishers decided against continuing involvement in the news business after being detained, sentenced to prison, or fined up to $3,200 (20,000 birr). There were credible allegations of executive influence in judicial proceedings against journalists. Judges set fines on an ad hoc basis. When a convicted person is unable to pay a fine, it is a common long-standing practice to divide his monthly salary into the outstanding fine to determine the number of months in prison. On three occasions judges applied this practice to detained journalists. As a result of poor management, market forces, and government harassment, the number of available newspapers declined from the high of 65 that were in operation at various times during 1993. By the end of 1994 there were about 20 weekly and 2 monthly magazines in circulation in Addis Ababa with a circulation of about 5,000 to 7,000 each.

Foreign journalists, including from the Voice of America, continued to operate freely in Ethiopia during this period, often writing articles critical of TGE policies and practices. The Government controls radio, the most influential medium in reaching the rural population, as well as the sole television station, and ensures that TGE policies are reflected in their programming. The official media devoted slightly more coverage to the activities of opposition groups than in 1993, but much of this coverage was negative.

The new Constitution provides for academic freedom. In January 1993, security forces killed an Addis Ababa University (AAU) student while dispersing an unauthorized demonstration against Eritrean independence at the University, in which protesters threw rocks at police. In February 1994, a commission of inquiry, which had been established to investigate the incident, found that the students, university security, and police were each partly to blame.

At year's end, none of the 41 AAU faculty members dismissed in April 1993, reportedly for expressing antigovernment views, had been reinstated. Only 4 of the 41 received any type of compensation from the Government, and the teachers' suit against the Government for wrongful dismissal continued to move slowly through the courts. The negative impact of the dismissals continued to resonate among AAU faculty.

Credible reports from many sources demonstrate that the authorities at both the national and regional levels harassed opposition political parties. The authorities often refused to rent meeting halls to opposition parties, surveilled party activities, and harassed individual members. A member of the Ethiopian Democratic Union Party (EDUP) was detained and beaten severely by two EPRDF officials in Addis Ababa for several hours after they discovered his EDUP membership card while interrogating him and a friend on the street. Two officials of the opposition Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Coalition (SEPDC) were allegedly summarily detained on December 28 after presenting local authorities in the town of Hosanna a written notification of SEPDC's intention to establish a party office. In August police detained 46 supporters of the newly formed ENDP in Awassa and Dilla in what many suspect was an attempt by southern region authorities to dismantle the party (see Section 1.d.).