ETHIOPIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
ILLEGAL MEASURES AGAINST BUSINESSMEN
Special Report No. 16
It is to be recalled that, in August 1996, Addis Ababa Administration raised the rent of shops and market stalls under its control. The extent of rent increase was as much as 40,000 % (see EHRCO's Special Report No.4/1996).
The businessmen whose businesses were thrown into a crises by the rent increase twice held a protest march and submitted their petitions to the government. Furthermore, the businessmen closed down their shops and held a protest rally at Mesqel Square on May 17, 1997. However, no government official went to the rally to hear their grievances. The businessmen went on a strike on Monday May 19,1997 in the hope of drawing the attention of the authorities and getting a solution to their crises. At lunch time, however, the Regional authorities warned on Ethiopian Radio that the business premises would be sealed unless the businessmen opened them by 3:00 p.m. Immediately after this deadline, those business premises which were still not open were sealed. According to the City's Administrator, Ato Ali Abdo, 84 persons who were thought to have co-ordinated the strike were detained and 1100 shops sealed. He also stated that if the businessmen whose business premises were sealed admitted that they had committed an off
ence by going on strike and appealed for a pardon, the authorities would then open their sealed shops. Nevertheless, he stressed that the co-ordinators of the strike would not be pardoned. In fact, he said that their trade licenses would be revoked, their shops taken away from them, and they would be charged. The Head of Region 14 Trade, Tourism and Industry Bureau, Ato Estifanos Senbeta, told government reporters on May 30, 1997 that of the 1300 shops that had been sealed, the case of 200 is still under review and that some would be opened pending a final decision soon. 29 licenses have already been cancelled, according to his statement.
There is no provision in Ethiopian laws that bans protests in the form of closing down one's business premise. Nor is there any provision which states that the authorities can seal the shops and revoke the trade licenses of striking businessmen. If the businessmen were considered to have committed an offence, their shops should have been sealed on a court's order. According to Article 12 of Proclamation No. 335/79, which is still in force, a trade license can be revoked only if the businessman has submitted false information goes bankrupt and closes down his business does not renew his license transfers his license to a third party without authorization violates the regulations and notices issued as per the Proclamation.
These conditions, however, do not apply to the present situation. What was broadcast over the radio was an ultimatum to open the shops by 9:00 p.m.; otherwise, no public notice was issued as per the Proclamation.
The practice of forcing citizens to admit committing an offence and appeal for a pardon whenever they used their right to express their protests has a consistent pattern. A few years ago when the employees of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia went on a strike and demanded a pay increase a number of them were laid off and the rest reinstated after being forced to appeal for a pardon. Last March, Addis Ababa University students who informed in advance the government agency concerned and staged a demonstration were rounded up by the police and tortured at Shogele Meda. Finally they were forced to admit that their demonstrating without a permission was an offence, pledge that they would never participate in such a demonstration henceforth and sign an application form requesting for a pardon. They were released from detention after fulfilling these conditions. Now, too, the businessmen were forced to fill in and sign an application form for a pardon which was prepared by the Addis Ababa Administration in which they were made to admit that their strike was illegal and that they would never resort to such an action in the future.
It is unfair for the government to seal the shops without a court order and then demand that the businessmen appeal to it for a pardon in order to get the seals removed. If citizens are to be forced to beg the government, which violates their rights and takes illegal measures against them, for a pardon whenever they use their constitutional rights to express their protest in legal and peaceful manners, people are not going to have confidence in the law and they will not have any legal guarantees for their activities.
The government's illegal sealing of business premises, revoking of licenses and detention of businessmen constitute a violation of human rights. EHRCO therefore asks the government to take the necessary steps to release the detained businessmen, open the business premises sealed by force, and reverse the decision to revoke and/or take away the trade licenses from the businessmen.
EHRCO also urges all supporters of human rights to do their utmost to stop the injustices done to the businessmen in Addis Ababa.
His Excellency Dr. Negasso Gidada
His Excellency Ato Meles Zenawi
His Excellency Ato Mahteme Solomon
His Excellency Ato Kemal Bedri