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

Elias Kifle | February 27th, 2009

Internet Freedom

The government restricted access to the Internet and blocked opposition Web sites, including the sites of the OLF, ONLF, Ginbot 7, and several news blogs and sites run by opposition diaspora groups, such as the Ethiopian Review, CyberEthiopia.com, Quatero Amharic Magazine, Tensae Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Media Forum.

On August 29, a statement by the New York-based NGO Center Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated that reliable sources reported that its servers were inaccessible to users, and that emails were not coming through to CPJ. These reports emerged at the same time CPJ was investigating the detention of The Reporter editor Amare Aregawi. The Reporter also alleged blocking of its Web site for four days during this time. CPJ’s Web site was also inaccessible at other times during the year.

The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), the state-run monopoly telecom and Internet provider, had approximately 30,000 Internet subscribers. Citizens in urban areas had ready access to Internet cafes; however, rural access remained extremely limited. Mobile telephone text messaging, which restarted in September 2007, was available. The number of mobile telephone subscribers reached 1.9 million.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom during the year, maintaining that professors could not espouse political sentiments. Authorities did not permit teachers at any level to deviate from official lesson plans and discouraged political activity and association of any kind on university campuses. Reports continued of uniformed and plainclothes police officers on and around university and high school campuses. Professors and students were discouraged from taking positions not in accordance with government positions or practices. College students were reportedly pressured to pledge allegiance to the EPRDF to secure enrollment in universities or post-graduation government jobs. There was a lack of transparency in academic staffing decisions, with numerous complaints from individuals in the academic community of bias based on ethnicity or religion. Speech, expression, and assembly were frequently restricted on university and high school campuses.

In June the government banned the first exhibition of nude photography scheduled to open on June 27 in Addis Ababa. The private photographer who organized the exhibition, Biniam Mengesha, told the media that culture ministry officials wanted to preview the photos, did so, then banned them for being pornography, not art.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Assembly

The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly; however, the government restricted this right. Organizers of large public meetings or demonstrations must notify the government 72 hours in advance and obtain a permit. The government issued permits to political parties to assemble in halls but has barred street demonstrations since 2005.

Opposition political parties reported that during the year their supporters were targets of frequent and systematic harassment and violence by government security forces, particularly in the lead up to the local elections (see section 3). Regional governments, including the Addis Ababa regional administration, are reluctant to grant permits or provide security for large meetings. For example, police refused to permit Unity for Democracy and Justice’s (UDJ) general assembly to meet in a hotel in Addis Ababa, despite a letter from the NEB stating no license was needed.

There were few attacks by police and militia against demonstrators since no public assembly permits were issued and illegal demonstrations were infrequent.

On August 21, residents of Dejen town, Amhara Region, gathered to protest local officials’ stalling on the residents’ application for use of nearby farmland. Local police and militia surrounded the demonstrators, beating dozens. A few protestors required hospitalization. No legal action was taken against the perpetrators.

There were no developments in the April 2007 police shooting of two demonstrators in Damot Weyde District and none in the 2006 killing of 15 demonstrators by police in the East Wallega zone, Guduru District.

The Independent Inquiry Commission, established in late 2006 by the government to investigate the use of excessive force by security forces in violent 2005 antigovernment demonstrations, found that security forces did not use excessive force, given demonstration violence; however, prior to the release of the report, the chairman and deputy chairman of the commission fled the country, allegedly in response to threats made against them by government forces. After fleeing, both stated publicly and showed video evidence that, at an official meeting in 2006, the commission had originally decided, by a vote of eight to two, that excessive force was used and that the total number of killed and injured was the same as eventually reported. Following this vote, government officials allegedly urged commission members to change their votes to indicate that excessive force was not used. At year’s end, the government had taken no action to investigate or prosecute perpetrators of the excessive force.

Freedom of Association

Although the law provides for freedom of association and the right to engage in unrestricted peaceful political activity, the government in practice limited this right. Opposition parties reported receiving no government subsidies for their political activities despite laws providing for them. The MOJ technically registers and licenses NGOs, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)screens applications for international NGOs and submits a recommendation to the MOJ whether to approve or deny registration. The MFA recommended that some international NGOs’ registration be denied absent a deposit of two million birr ($195,000), effectively preventing them from registering.

As provided by law, the government required political parties to register with the NEB, which continued to limit political activity by the CUDP. For example, on January 3, the NEB awarded the CUDP name to a renegade member and the CUDP party symbol to another breakaway group, the United Ethiopian Democratic Party (UEDP)-Medhin, forcing the bulk of the CUDP’s leaders to establish new parties.

During the year the UEDF, UDJ, OFDM, and Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) reported arrests of members and the forced closure of political party offices throughout the country and intimidation of landlords to force them to evict the political groups (see sections 1.d. and 3).

During the year some political leaders, including federal and regional MPs, were discouraged from traveling to their constituencies to meet with supporters, although others visited constituents without incident. For example, OFDM chairman Bulcha Demeksa was persuaded not to visit his constituency in Wellega district, Oromiya Region, because the government told him his security could not be guaranteed. Some local officials blocked some opposition MPs access to their constituencies, arguing that as federal MPs they had no reason to visit.

The ETA has operated since 1967, but in 1993, after the EPRDF took power, an alternate, pro-EPRDF ETA was established. In 1993 the original ETA and the government-supported ETA began prolonged legal battles over the organization’s name and property rights. On June 26, the Court of Cassation ruled against ETA and awarded its name and property to the pro-EPRDF ETA (see section 6.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

The constitution and law provide for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice; however, local authorities and members of society occasionally infringed on this right. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) and Sufi Islam are the dominant religions; nearly 90 percent of the population adhered to one or the other faith.

While the government required that religious institutions annually register with the MOJ, there were no reports of government action against institutions that chose not to register. Under the law, a religious organization that undertakes development activities must register its development wing separately as an NGO. The government did not issue work visas to foreign religious workers unless they were associated with the development wing of a religious organization.

Some religious property confiscated under the Mengistu (Derg) regime had not been returned by year’s end.

Minority religious groups reported discrimination in the allocation of government land for religious sites. Authorities continued to ban Waka-Feta, a traditional animist Oromo religious group, because it suspected that the group’s leaders had close links to the OLF. Protestant groups occasionally reported that local officials discriminated against them when they sought land for churches and cemeteries. Evangelical leaders stated that because authorities perceived them as “newcomers,” they were at a disadvantage compared with the EOC and the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) in the allocation of land. The EIASC claimed it had more difficulty obtaining land from the government than did the EOC; others charged that the government favored the EIASC.

On May 6, the MFA hosted a conference for religious, regional, and NGO leaders to promote religious tolerance. Also, an interfaith dialogue involving leaders from the Orthodox Church, EIASC, and other religious institutions meets regularly to discuss such issues as interfaith cooperation, religious tolerance, health, and community development.

On December 1, police opened fire at a public gathering near a church in Arba-Minch (Gamo Gofa Zone), wounding three individuals. Police were reportedly attempting to disperse a crowd following a disagreement between Orthodox priests. [Continued on next page]

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