Ethiopia: Beyond the Hubris of Evil

Reeyot Alemu When I wrote a commentary on the plight of the imprisoned 32-year old Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu last April, I titled it “The Audacity of Evil in Ethiopia.” At the time, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had sent a letter to the “Minister of Justice” of the ruling regime in Ethiopia pleading medical care for Reeyot and urging them to spare her from a threatened solitary confinement. In that commentary, I explained why I was compelled to “stray from my professional fields of law and politics” to moral philosophy.

In this commentary, I am again compelled to indulge in philosophical musings on the hubris of evil. I am prompted once again by a statement of the Committee to Protect Journalists issued last week protesting the decision by the ruling regime to impose severe visitor restrictions on Reeyot.  CPJ “called upon the Ethiopian authorities to lift these latest restrictions and allow Reeyot Alemu to receive all visitors… She is a journalist, not a criminal, and should not be behind bars.”

Reeyot began a hunger strike to protest an order by regime officials to pre-clear a list of her prison visitors. “In retaliation for the hunger strike, authorities forbade her from having any visitors excluding her parents and priest.” She was subsequently told that “she could receive any visitors except for her younger sister and her fiancé, journalist Sileshi Hagos [who had spoken publicly about the visitor exclusion order]… Sileshi was detained for four hours at the prison later that day when he attempted to visit Reeyot.”

On a number of occasions, I have written about Reeyot’s plight, courage and fearless advocacy of press independence and public accountability in Ethiopia. In the last two years, she has become a heroine of press freedom not only in Ethiopia and Africa but the world. The prestigious international press awards she has received speak volumes on her ferocious defense of press freedom in Ethiopia. Reeyot was the recipient of the  International Women’s Media Foundation 2012 Courage in Journalism Award for “her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.” She received the 2012 Hellman/Hammett award administered by Human Rights Watch “in recognition of her efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia.” She also received the 2013 World Press Freedom Prize awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for “exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”. She and co-political prisoner Eskinder Nega are two of seven journalists and human rights activists nominated for the European Parliament’s 2013 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Virtually every major international human rights and press organization has come to Reeyot’s defense since her arrest in 2011. Human Rights Watch challenged the legal validity of the “terrorism” allegations against her and noted that “the descriptions of the charges [against Reeyot] in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”Amnesty International declared that “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and the other independent journalists] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.” PEN American Center “protested the harsh punishment handed down to” Reeyot and fellow political prisoner Woubshet Taye and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.” The International Women’s Media Foundation saw Reeyot’s “trial” as an intimidation tactic against all independent women journalists: “The fact that the Ethiopian Government pursues and persecutes courageous, brave and professional women journalists does not bode well particularly for young women who may be interested in journalism. As a result, women’s voices (as reporters, editors, journalists, decision-making chambers) are rarely heard and women’s  issues are often relegated to secondary position.” CPJ demanded, “Writing critical columns about the government is not a criminal offense and is certainly not a terrorist act–Reeyot should be released immediately.” Many other organizations including Reporters Without Borders have expressed similar views and made demands for her immediate release.

Hubris of evil

When I wrote about the audacity of evil last April, I was philosophically concerned about the evils of ordinary human wickedness and bestial human behavior. I was concerned about gratuitous evil (pointless evil from which no greater good can be derived) committed by ordinary and sub-ordinary wicked people whose intellect is corrupted and are bereft of moral discernment and judgment. Here I write about the hubris of evil. In ancient Greece, hubris was the most heinous of crimes. Aristotle described hubris as an abusive act intended to shame and humiliate the victim, not because of anything the victim has done or might do but merely for the gratification and pleasure of the abuser. He wrote that the insolently hubristic “man thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them. That is why youths and rich men are insolent; they think themselves superior when they show insolence” (Rhetoric 1378b).

Hubris is a malignancy of the heart and depravity of the mind. The hubristically evil have two basic characteristics. First, they believe they are untouchable and accountable to no one. They have a sociopathic personality which prevents them from maintaining a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. For them, there is no law to curtail their excesses because they believe their words and acts are ipso facto law. Feeding at the trough of moral nihilism (whatever they say is right or wrong), they are driven by a deep psychological need to degrade, humiliate, demean, brutalize and dehumanize their victims as a means to self-respect and personal empowerment. When they degrade and humiliate their defenseless and helpless victims, the derive a perverse pleasure of omnipotence, superiority and self-affirmation. For the hubristically evil, indifference is their modus vivendi (way of life) and cruelty their modus operandi (way of doing things).

Second, the hubristically evil are incapable of admitting wrong or accepting responsibility for their wrongful actions. Rather, they take cover in a perverted morality of blaming the victim. Instead of atoning for their misdeeds and accepting responsibility, they demand that the very victims they have humiliated, brutalized and abused get on their knees apologize to them and beg forgiveness. They have the brazen audacity to insist that their victims must take full responsibility for the abuse they have received from their abusers.

The political sadism of the regime in Ethiopia

As I seek to understand the hubris of the ruling regime in Ethiopia, I ask some simple questions. Why do those in power in Ethiopia want to torment and humiliate Reeyot (and the other political prisoners)? Isn’t a 14 year sentence enough punishment for a young woman who committed NO crime? Is the regime punishing her with solitary confinement, visitor restrictions, denial of medical care and subjecting her to daily degradation and humiliation because of her defiance and outright refusal to beg for a pardon to get out of prison? Do they take her defiance as her ultimate expression of contempt and lack of fear of them? What do they gain by locking her up in solitary confinement, an administrative action reserved only for the most violent inmates in any prison in the world? Does the regime resent Reeyot (and the other high profile political prisoners) because she is a shining star of press freedom not only for Ethiopia but also for women journalists in Africa, Latin America and Asia?

Those who insist on tormenting Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other high profile political prisoners do so to force them to make a public confession of guilt for their “crimes” and beg for a pardon. The “pardon” trick was “invented” by the late honcho of the regime. After warehousing dozens of opposition leaders who won the May 2005 parliamentary election, the late regime leader set up an “elders committee” to facilitate a pardon process for them. To get out of prison, the opposition leaders had to sign a confession (“a pardon application”) which stated: “We, leaders of CUD, have accepted our mistake committed following the election disagreement of May 2005 in which we tried to change unconstitutionally various bodies of the government. We will take the responsibility in person and in group for these mistakes.” They signed the “confession” and were pardoned and released!

In December 2008, the late regime leader railroaded opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, to prison on the bogus charge that she had “denied receiving a pardon”. After spending months in solitary confinement and suffering humiliation and degradation for nearly two years, Bitrukan “confessed” and “submitted a second application for pardon” stating: “I express my deep regret for deceiving the Ethiopian people and government by denying my release on pardon. Pledging not to ever resort to such fraudulent and deceptive acts I beg the Ethiopian people and government to grant me pardon.” She was “pardoned” in October 2010 and released!

In October 2011, Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were sentenced to eleven years as “terrorists”.  At the time, I predicted that soon enough the late leader  “will grandstand and declare the two journalists have been pardoned and released after they admitted guilt, expressed remorse and so on.” In September 2012, the two journalists were released after they submitted an “application for pardon”.  The regime put the two journalists on regime-owned television and forced them to confess that they “regretted entering the country with armed separatists of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and without documentation.”

There is no question that Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners can walk out of prison at any time if they “confess” wrongdoing and “submit a pardon application.”  All Reeyot has to do to walk out of prison at any time is to get down on her knees, bow down her head, confess her political transgressions and beg to be “pardoned”. But Reeyot refuses to beg a “pardon” because she has done nothing wrong for which she needs to be pardoned. Following her sentence, Reeyot’s father, responding to a reporter’s question on whether he would advise his daughter to apologize and beg for a pardon, replied:

This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit,   there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.

The same goes for Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye. They have done nothing wrong so they shall ask for no pardon!

On another level, I also believe that the regime leaders deeply resent Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other high profile political prisoners for the international attention and support they have been able to command. In many ways, these “bothersome” journalists have created a public relations nightmare for the regime. As I understand, many of the regime leaders believe these journalists have not only discredited them internationally but also taken the international recognition they feel they deserve.

In a comedic way, the regime leaders in Ethiopia remind me of the American comedian and actor, Rodney Dangerfield, known for the catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!” Regardless of what they do, they “don’t get no respect.” They sought world recognition for their single minded determination to build the “largest dam in Africa”, the so-called Renaissance Dam. That fantasy dam has become a potential casus belli (war justification) for Egypt. I called it dam of the damned. The regime trumpeted its 11 percent annual economic growth for the past decade, a canard mindlessly bandied about  by many of the world’s respected news organizations and even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I totally debunked that bold-faced lie in my commentary “Kerry-ing on With African Dictators”. For two decades, the regime proclaimed a warped doctrine of ethnic federalism as a political panacea for Ethiopia, but it was shown to be nothing more than a kinder and gentler form of Bantustans (kilils) under Apartheid South Africa. The regime and its late honcho sought domestic and international respectability for their “historic” and “monumental” achievements. Regardless of what they did or said, like Rodney Dangerfield, they just “don’t get no respect.”

A win-win proposal for the release of Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and other political prisoners

I believe there is a legal way out of the “pardon” dilemma. Let’s be perfectly honest! We all know what the problem is:  The regime needs to save face for imprisoning Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners without just cause. Their signature way of saving face — namely having the victims confess their guilt in public and apply for a pardon — is not a workable political solution with these young journalists. But a legal solution is what is needed; and the dispositive question is whether the approval of Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners  is a necessary legal precondition for granting them pardon. It is not!

The regime can legally pardon the imprisoned journalists and others suo motu (a fancy legal word which means an act of authority taken without formal prompting from another party). Article 11 of Proclamation No. 395/2004 (“A Proclamation to Provide for the Procedure of Granting Pardon”) provides, “The main purpose of granting pardon is to ensure the welfare and interest of the public.” Article 12 provides that “…  the Ministry of Justice and the Federal prison commission may apply for pardon for persons entitled to it. Where the offices (sic) decides to apply for pardon, it shall deliver a copy of the application letter to the person in whose favour it is to be made.” The “person in whose favour a petition for pardon has been submitted pursuant to Sub-Article 2 of this Article declines it, he shall notify, the same to the Board in writing within fifteen consecutive working days.” Unless the prospective recipient of a pardon expressly refuses the pardon, “the acceptance of the pardon shall be presumed.”

Simply stated, the regime can declare that it has granted pardon and released Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners “to ensure the welfare and interest of the public” and in proper exercise of its prerogative under the Proclamation. I cannot imagine any reasonable person challenging or criticizing the regime for exercising its discretionary legal pardon authority on its own. The simple fact is that the regime does not need the request or approval of Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners to grant them pardon. The regim can simply issue the pardon and tell them they are free to go. No “muss, no fuss”!

My own studies of pardon powers in other societies have led me to the conclusion that pardon is a prerogative of mercy exercised by state authorities to mitigate the severity of the law. It is a discretionary power  that can be exercised at any time to temper retribution with mercy,  correct a miscarriage of justice or reconcile the ends of justice with compelling social and political needs. U.S. presidents have granted amnesties after the Civil War to the Southern rebels and to those who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. President Bill Clinton granted pardon to Patricia Hearst who committed horrendous “terrorist acts” as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

I harbor no illusions that the regime will pay any attention to my “win-win” proposal for the release of Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners. How could they possibly even consider a proposal from their severest and most relentless critic? They will no doubt dismiss anything I have to say because they probably believe I am proposing it to make them look bad or inflexible or show them to be obdurate. But this is not about my personal feelings or attitudes towards them or their governance style. It is all about their own pardon law and what they can do legally, immune from criticism or condemnation by anyone.  

All I am proposing is use of the regime’s own pardon law to face a critical human rights problem in such a way that they will not lose face or face criticism; and in fact by courageously facing the issue, they can gain universal approbation and admiration. The power of “pardon” is not in the hands of Reeyot, Eskinder, Woubshet and the other political prisoners. It is totally in the hands of the regime; and it can be exercised at will and at any time. Why not right a wrong when one has the unquestioned legal power to right a wrong and do the right thing?

“I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future in Ethiopia.” Reeyot Alemu

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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