U.S. Department of States Human Rights report on Ethiopia

Elias Kifle | February 27th, 2009

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

The country has three federal prisons, 117 regional prisons, and many unofficial prisons. Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening. Severe overcrowding was a problem. In September 2007 it was reported that there were 52,000 persons in prison.Earlier in the year, prison populations decreased by 10,000 due to pardons but reportedly again increased due to increases in ethnic conflict and economic crimes. Prisoners often had less than 22 square feet of sleeping space in a room that could contain up to 200 persons, and sleeping in rotations was not uncommon in regional prisons. The daily meal budget was approximately 5 birr (50 cents) per prisoner. Many prisoners supplemented this with daily food deliveries from family members or by purchasing food from local vendors. Prison conditions were unsanitary and there was no budget for prison maintenance. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional prisons.

In detention centers, police often physically abused detainees. Authorities generally permitted visitors but sometimes arbitrarily denied them access to detainees. In some cases, family visits to political prisoners were restricted to a few per year.

While statistics were unavailable, there were some deaths in prison due to illness and poor health care. Prison officials were not forthcoming with reports of such deaths. Several pardoned political prisoners had serious health problems in detention but received little treatment at the time.

Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults if they could not be accommodated at the juvenile remand home. Men and women prisoners were largely, but not always, segregated.

During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited regional prisons only. The government continued to prevent ICRC representatives from visiting police stations and federal prisons throughout the country including those where opposition, civil society, and media leaders were held. Regional authorities allowed the ICRC to meet regularly with prisoners without third parties being present. The ICRC also continued to visit civilian Eritrean nationals and local citizens of Eritrean origin detained on alleged national security grounds. The local NGO Prison Fellowship Ethiopia (JFA-PFE) was granted access to various prison and detention facilities, including federal prisons. The government also periodically granted diplomatic missions access to regional prisons and prison officials, subject to advance notification.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

The Federal Police Commission reports to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, which is subordinate to the parliament; however, this subordination is loose in practice. Local militias also operated as local security forces largely independent of the police and military. Corruption remained a problem, particularly among traffic police who solicited bribes. Impunity also remained a serious problem. According to contacts at government agencies, the government rarely publicly disclosed the results of investigations into abuses by local security forces, such as arbitrary detentions and beatings of civilians. The federal police acknowledged that many of its members as well as regional police lacked professionalism.

The government continued its efforts to train police and army recruits in human rights. During the year the government continued to seek assistance from the ICRC, JFA-PFE, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to improve and professionalize its human rights training and curriculum by including more material on the constitution and international human rights treaties and conventions. JFA-PFE conducted human rights training for police commissioners and members of the militia.

Arrest and Detention

Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions. Although the law requires detainees to be brought to court and charged within 48 hours, this generally was not respected in practice. While there was a functioning bail system, it was not available in murder, treason, and corruption cases. In most cases authorities set bail between 500 and 10,000 birr ($494-975), which was too costly for most citizens. Police officials did not always respect court orders to release suspects on bail. With court approval, persons suspected of serious offenses can be detained for 14 days and for additional 14‑day periods if an investigation continues. The law prohibits detention in any facilities other than an official detention center; however, there were dozens of unofficial local detention centers used by local government militia and other formal and informal law enforcement entities. The government provided public defenders for detainees unable to afford private legal counsel but only when their cases went to court. While in pretrial detention, authorities allowed such detainees little or no contact with legal counsel.

Opposition party members consistently reported that in small towns, authorities detained persons in police stations for long periods without charge or access to a judge, and that sometimes these persons’ whereabouts were unknown for several months. Opposition parties registered many complaints during the year that government militias beat and detained their supporters without charge in the run-up to the local and by-elections held earlier in the year. For example, at a May wedding in Chendiba town in Chilga District, Amhara Region, officials arrested nine AEUP supporters: Wagnew Tadesse, Mekuanent Seneshaw, Alehegne Mekuanent, Kifle Tadege, Demissie Yehualla, Kolagie Jegne, Teffera Akemu, Setegne Tadege, and Endale Tadege. Officials accused them of holding an illegal political gathering. At year’s end, all nine remained in jail, held without bail, formal charges, or communication with their families.

On October 4, the government released eight of 10 Kenyans suspected of being foreign fighters in Somalia and detained clandestinely in the country since early 2007. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Kenya originally arrested at least 150 suspected fighters of several nationalities and then rendered dozens to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) for questioning. Most were eventually released but these last 10 remained in ENDF custody where they reported beatings and torture. The whereabouts of the remaining two were unknown at year’s end.

In late October, officials arrested at least 53 ethnic Oromos (some reported as high as 200), including university lecturers, businessmen, and housewives, many with no apparent political affiliation, for alleged support to the banned OLF. Many supporters of the mainstream political opposition OFDM were also arrested during the same time period for the same charges.

On December 23 and 24, hundreds of Somalis were arrested in Addis Ababa. A Somali embassy spokesperson reported that following the initial round-up, police checked records, fingerprinted, and then released detainees.

Just before the Ethiopian New Year in September 2007, security forces arrested individuals suspected of supporting the OLF or terrorist activity. Many were members of the opposition United Ethiopian Democractic Forces (UEDF) or OFDM parties. Approximately 450 arrests were reported to opposition party offices in Addis Ababa. At year’s end, 148 detainees remained in jail.

In the case of Yosef Abera and nine others who were arrested in 2006 on accusations of providing food and arms to the OLF, police transferred them from Ayra Guliso town in Oromiya to Senkelle Police Training Center, also in Oromiya. They were released on March 16 after signing a letter stating they would not participate in any future illegal activities.

Police continued to enter private residences and arrest individuals without warrants (see section 1.f.).

Most of the 180 persons arrested in Nazret, Oromiya Region, in 2006 were released in 2006, but there was no information available on the remaining three detained at year’s end.

Amnesty

On March 28, the federal government pardoned two human rights activists, Daniel Bekele and Netsanat Demissie, after they signed an admission of guilt and served 28 months in detention. These two were the last of the high-profile political detainees arrested after the 2005 national elections. Both originally declined to admit guilt, instead defending their case before the Federal High Court. The court ultimately convicted them of incitement, a charge that had never been alleged or raised until the day of the court’s verdict, and sentenced both to 30 months imprisonment.

On September 28, the federal government granted amnesty to 4,500 prisoners, excluding convicted murderers, rapists, and those found guilty of corruption.

On November 16, the Tigray regional government granted amnesty to 2,167 prisoners, excluding those who committed crimes in connection with corruption, and causing fire and destruction of infrastructures or forests.

On November 25, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Pardon Board pardoned 44 OLF members who were convicted of serious crimes after serving 16 years in prison.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence. Constitutional interpretation remains solely with the upper house of parliament, exclusively comprised of ruling party members, which also handles judicial appointments and reviews judicial conduct. Judicial practice allows the court unilaterally to convict defendants on charges not raised by the prosecution at any point preceding the court’s decision on guilt. This practice effectively impedes defendants from presenting an adequate defense as they may not be aware of the potential charges they face.

The government continued to decentralize and restructure the judiciary along federal lines with the establishment of courts at the district, zonal, and regional levels. The Federal High Court and the Federal Supreme Court heard and adjudicated original and appeal cases involving federal law, transregional issues, and national security. The regional judiciary was increasingly autonomous and often heard regional cases.

Regional offices of the federal MOJ monitored local judicial developments. Some regional courts had jurisdiction over both local and federal matters, as the federal courts in those jurisdictions had not begun operation; overall, the federal judicial presence in the regions was limited. Because of this, many citizens residing in rural areas did not have reasonable access to the federal judicial system and were forced to rely on traditional conflict resolution mechanisms like the Elders’ Councils. Anecdotal evidence suggested that women did not always have access to free and fair hearings in the traditional justice system because they were excluded from participation in the Elders’ Councils and because there was strong gender discrimination in rural areas.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that some local officials believed they were not accountable to a higher authority.

The judicial system severely lacked experienced staff, sometimes making the application of the law unpredictable. The government continued to train lower court judges and prosecutors and made effective judicial administration its primary focus.

Judicial corruption was a significant issue. During the year, the federal MOJ brought corruption cases against 17 judges; however, 15 of those cases were dismissed without sanction against the judges involved. The remaining two cases were pending at year’s end. [Continued on next page]

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