The U.S. government on Friday commended activists, citizens and journalists for their courage in advocating for universal human rights and expressed concern over the heightened crackdown on civil liberties, rebuking several countries for shrinking the space for journalists and activists.
In its 36th annual report of human rights practices around the world, the State Department criticized the increased suppression of freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion. The report said governments continued to repress or attack the means by which individuals organize and “demand better performance from their rulers” by instituting new impending laws throughout 2012.
The State Department report singled out Ethiopia for its use of “counter terrorism or extremism as a pretext for suppressing freedom of expression.” It added the ruling party, EPRDF, used anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute journalists, opposition members, and activists.
The report’s expanded section on Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally on the war on terror,contained damning criticisms of the country’s human rights violations. It documented “politically motivated trials and convictions of opposition figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers, as well as increased restrictions on print media.” The report also highlighted the use of force and arrest of Muslims, who’ve been protesting against what they say is government interference in religious matters for close to two years now.
Other grave human rights violations included impunity for government officials; arbitrary killings; allegations of torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; reports of harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; a weak, overburdened judiciary subject to political influence; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; allegations of abuses in the implementation of the government’s “villagization” program; restrictions on academic freedom; limits on citizens’ ability to change their government; police, administrative, and judicial corruption.
Here are some excerpts from the report:
TORTURE AND OTHER INHUMAN TREATMENTS
In 2010 the UN Committee Against Torture reported it was “deeply concerned” about “numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations” concerning “the routine use of torture” by police, prison officers, and other members of the security forces–including the military–against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorists, and alleged supporters of violent separatist groups like the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
The committee reported that such acts frequently occurred with the participation of, at the instigation of, or with the consent of commanding officers in police stations, detention centers, federal prisons, military bases, and unofficial or secret places of detention. Some reports of such abuses continued during the year. Sources widely believed police investigators often used physical abuse to extract confessions in Maekelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa. Authorities continued to restrict access by diplomats and NGOs to Maekelawi.
PRISON AND DETENTION CENTER CONDITIONS
As of September there were 70,000 – 80,000 persons in prison, of whom approximately 2,500 were women and nearly 600 were children incarcerated with their mothers.
Juveniles sometimes were incarcerated with adults, and small children were sometimes incarcerated with their mothers. Male and female prisoners generally were separated. Severe overcrowding was common, especially in sleeping quarters. The government provided approximately eight birr ($0.44) per prisoner per day for food, water, and health care. Many prisoners supplemented this amount with daily food deliveries from family members or by purchasing food from local vendors, although there were reports of some prisoners being prevented from receiving supplemental food from their families.
Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional prisons. Prisoners had limited access to potable water, as did many in the country. Also, water shortages caused unhygienic conditions, and most prisons lacked appropriate sanitary facilities. Many prisoners had serious health problems in detention but received little treatment. Information released by the Ministry of Health during the year reportedly stated nearly 62 percent of inmates in various jails across the country suffered from mental health problems as a result of solitary confinement, overcrowding, and lack of adequate health care facilities and services.
The country has six federal and 120 regional prisons. There also are many unofficial detention centers throughout the country, including in Dedessa, Bir Sheleko, Tolay, Hormat, Blate, Tatek, Jijiga, Holeta, and Senkele. Most are located at military camps.
DENIAL OF FAIR PUBLIC TRIAL
During the year the government concluded trials against 31 persons who had been charged with terrorist activities under the anti-terrorism proclamation. These trials included cases against 12 journalists, opposition political figures, and activists based in the country, as well as an Ethiopian employee of the UN. All were found guilty. Eighteen persons living abroad were convicted in absentia. The government also invoked the anti-terrorism proclamation in charging 28 Muslims identified with protests and one Muslim accused of accepting funds illegally from a foreign embassy.
Several international human rights organizations and foreign diplomatic missions raised concerns over the conduct of the trials. Observers found the evidence presented at trials to be either open to interpretation or indicative of acts of a political nature rather than linked to terrorism. Human rights groups also noted the law’s broad definition of terrorism, as well as its severe penalties, its broad rules of evidence, and the discretionary powers afforded police and security forces.
In some sensitive cases deemed to involve matters of national security, notably the high-profile trials of activists in the Muslim community, detainees stated authorities initially denied them the right to see attorneys. The trial of the 28 Muslims identified with protests and one Muslim accused of accepting funds illegally from a foreign embassy was not fully open to family and supporters, although it was initially open to the press and diplomats. The trial of 11 persons (including six persons in absentia) charged on May 19 with being members of the terrorist organizations al-Qa’ida and al-Shabaab was not open to the public.
The government restricted access to the Internet and blocked several Web sites, including blogs, opposition Web sites, and Web sites of Ginbot 7, the OLF, and the ONLF. The government also temporarily blocked news sites such as the Washington Post, the Economist, and Al Jazeera, and temporarily blocked links to foreign government reporting on human rights conditions in the country. Several news blogs and Web sites run by opposition diaspora groups were not accessible.
These included Addis Neger, Nazret, Ethiopian Review, CyberEthiopia, Quatero Amharic Magazine, Tensae Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Media Forum. A foreign government news Web site was only available periodically, although users could generally access it via proxy sites. Authorities took steps to block access to Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers that let users circumvent government screening of Internet browsing and email. According to the government, 4 percent of individuals subscribed to Internet access.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom, including through decisions on student enrollment, teachers’ appointments, and the curriculum. Speech, expression, and assembly frequently were restricted on university and high school campuses.
According to sources, the ruling party, via the Ministry of Education, continued to give preference to students loyal to the party in assignments to postgraduate programs. While party membership was not as common at the undergraduate level, some university staff members commented priority for employment after graduation in all fields was given to students who joined the party.
The government also restricted academic freedom in other ways. Authorities limited teachers’ ability to deviate from official lesson plans. Numerous anecdotal reports suggested non-EPRDF members were more likely to be transferred to undesirable posts and bypassed for promotions. There were some reports of teachers not affiliated with the EPRDF being summarily dismissed for failure to attend nonscheduled meetings. There continued to be a lack of transparency in academic staffing decisions, with numerous complaints from individuals in the academic community alleging bias based on party membership, ethnicity, or religion.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY AND ASSOCIATION
Beginning in late 2011 and continuing throughout much of the year, some members of the Muslim community, alleging government interference in religious affairs, held peaceful protests following Friday prayers at several of Addis Ababa’s largest mosques, the Aweliya Islamic Center in Addis Ababa, and at other locations throughout the country. Most demonstrations occurred without incident, although some were met with arrests and alleged use of unnecessary force by police.
In late July authorities arrested as many as 1,000 Muslim demonstrators, including members of a self-appointed committee claiming to represent the interests of the Muslim community, for protesting alleged government interference in religious affairs. The majority of the protesters subsequently were released without charge. On October 29, authorities charged 29 individuals under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation; 28 of the individuals were identified with the protest movement, while one was accused of accepting funds illegally from a foreign embassy.
On October 21, in the South Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region, police and protesters clashed during a gathering during elections for the local Islamic council. Accounts of the event differed. One report indicated protesters threw stones at the houses of Muslims who participated in the election. In response to the stone throwing, police arrested the protest organizer. A crowd then marched on the police station, demanding his release. Protesters reportedly entered the police station by force, killing one police officer and seriously injuring another. Police reportedly killed two protesters, including the detained protest organizer.
RESPECT FOR POLITICAL RIGHTS
Political parties were predominantly ethnically based. EPRDF constituent parties conferred advantages upon their members; the parties directly owned many businesses and were broadly perceived to award jobs and business contracts to loyal supporters. Several opposition political parties reported difficulty in renting homes or buildings in which to open offices, citing visits by EPRDF members to the landlords to persuade or threaten them not to rent property to these parties.
During the year, there were credible reports teachers and other government workers had their employment terminated if they belonged to opposition political parties. According to Oromo opposition groups, the Oromia regional government continued to threaten to dismiss opposition party members, particularly teachers, from their jobs.
Government officials made allegations many members of legitimate Oromo opposition political parties were secretly OLF members and more broadly that members of many opposition parties had ties to Ginbot 7. At the university level members of Medrek and its constituent parties were able to teach.