By Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes
The Ethiopian government’s announcement in January that it would release jailed political leaders, some already convicted and others with ongoing trials, was music to the ears of many, including the prisoners’ families and friends, as well as human rights activists, but few thought it would come to pass. In the same announcement, the government also promised to shut down the notorious Maekelawi Detention Centre where most of the prisoners, and many others before them, were held and in many cases tortured or ill-treated. The government will not admit that most of the detainees, who it labelled “criminals”, were in fact held on false charges and simply for their political views and activities.
Well, to the surprise of the doubters, the government made good its promise, and has so far released more than 7,000 prisoners, including renowned journalist Eskinder Nega, who spent more than seven years behind bars, and prominent opposition figure Bekele Gerba.
But in a twist of events just a few weeks later, the high hopes raised by the government’s perceived move towards reform were dashed when it declared a state of emergency. This was amid heightened political tension and instability following a 3-day strike in the Oromia Region which disrupted transportation and flow of goods and services into the capital, Addis Ababa, and the resignation of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn.
And Ethiopia continues to disappoint. On the night of 25 March, Eskinder Nega was re-arrested, along with 10 other people. This is a clear abuse of power by the Ethiopian authorities and serves as yet more evidence that the state of emergency is being cynically exploited for political ends. a clear abuse of power by the Ethiopian authorities and serve as yet more evidence that the state of emergency is being cynically exploited for political ends
Already the serious human rights violations that many had feared and warned could result from this state of emergency have started materializing. On 10 March, Ethiopian security forces shot dead 10 people and injured 15 others in the southern town of Moyale, on the Kenyan border. This use of deadly force by the security forces, which the Ethiopian government has sought to explain away as a “mistake” due to incorrect intelligence of rebel activity by the Oromo Liberation Front, has already displaced thousands of people – with at least 8,000 of them fleeing across the border into Kenya.
Here are 10 facts about this state of emergency
- The current state of emergency, which was declared on 16 February 2016, is the second one in less than two years. The first one lasted 10 months, from October 2016 to August 2017. During those 10 months, the security forces arrested more than 26,000 people and committed seriousEskinder Nega was re-arrested yesterday, along with 10 other people human rights violations, including torture. This current one is already showing alarming signs of the same.Eskinder Nega was re-arrested yesterday, along with 10 other people
- On 21 February, the government issued a directive in which it outlined acts prohibited under the state of emergency and the punishments those found violating the directive will face.
- The directive imposes blanket restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. In effect, all unauthorized protests are prohibited, yet the procedure for authorization of protests is vague. There is no clear guidance on what information is required or the procedure to follow in order to get permission to organise a protest.
- “Dissemination of any information criticising the state of emergency or any other similar activity”, both on social and traditional media, is also banned. So even simply discussing the state of emergency is risky and could land a person in detention if deemed critical of the state of emergency.
- The Command Post, the body overseeing the implementation of the directive, now has sweeping powers to shut down any media outlet to “safeguard the constitution”.
- The directive is rife with broad and vague phrases such as “communications with terrorist organizations and anti-peace groups” and “disrupting tolerance and peace”. This gives the security forces unfettered powers to clamp down on all expression of dissent, including peaceful dissent.
- Under the directive, security agents now have powers, even without a warrant, to arrest anyone suspected of breaching its restrictions. They also have free rein to search houses and vehicles without a warrant.
- Even schools are not spared. Security forces can enter schools and universities to stop any act they believe violates the rules established under the state of emergency and to remain there for as long as necessary. Prolonged presence of security forces in institutions of learning is not only intimidating to students but may also expose them to sexual violence and harassment.
- The directive also authorizes the Command Post to provide “rehabilitation education” to those detained for violating its terms. If what happened in the last state of emergency is anything to go by, this will lead to human rights violations against detainees, including torture. Under the previous state of emergency, many detainees were beaten, verbally abused and subjected to strenuous physical exercises during “rehabilitation”.
- The state of emergency is further constricting the already narrow space for freedom of expression, assembly and association in the country.
The above raise serious concerns about the protection of human rights during the state of emergency period. The Ethiopian government must reconsider the overly broad powers granted to the Command Post with a view to reducing them, and ensuring that any measures taken under the state of emergency do not violate the rights of the people in Ethiopia.
Join us, let’s tell the Ethiopian government to ensure human rights are protected during this state of emergency and that no more human rights violations are committed during entire period and beyond.