It is not entirely out of the ordinary to hear of the arrest of political dissidents in Ethiopia, but a recent cluster of arrests has drawn attention from the international human rights community.
Over the last few weeks, a group of at least nine journalists, Ethiopian National Democratic Party members and others, have been arrested and detained under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652. This added to some two dozen other individuals said to have been charged under the same law over the last couple of months. This 2009 law uses the buzzword “terrorism” to encourage the West to continue to see Ethiopia as a vital partner in the War on Terror, drawing attention away from the law’s true purpose: suppressing any opposition to the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Given the recent unrest in several other African countries, the uptick in arrests under the law is worrying, and tends to validate earlier concerns over its potential for facilitating human rights violations.Disguising human rights violations and oppression with positive terminology is not new to Ethiopian legislators, who passed the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No. 590 in 2008. This idealistic-sounding law’s title belies its contents, because it enables the government to bring charges against “any person who is suspected of committing an offence through the mass media.” Such offenses include the publication of statements critical of the legislative, executive or judicial authorities that are deemed false or defamatory.It is up to the attorney general to decide if the accused journalist should be detained on remand.
The more recent adoption of terrorism as a tool for oppression has allowed the Ethiopian government to take much greater measures to eradicate opposition. The ruling regime has learned that the West needs its support for its own anti-terrorism efforts in the region, so much so that human rights abuses can be overlooked. Many argued against HR 2003, The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 when it was before the US Congress, because they felt that conditioning non-essential US aid to Ethiopia on the regime’s attainment of certain human rights benchmarks would damage a relationship crucial to fighting terrorism. The reaction in Ethiopia was mixed, and the bill never came to a vote after reaching the US Senate.
The Ethiopian government was encouraged by the bill’s failure, and by its provision specifically exempting anti-terrorism funding from the human rights benchmarks. Thus the regime enhanced its restrictions on freedom of speech by hiding them behind Western-friendly terms, the most powerful of which turned out to be “terrorism.” Recognizing the nation’s geographic and political value as a strategic outpost for the West’s War on Terror in East Africa and the Middle East, the Ethiopian government made a show of its dedication to fighting terrorism not only for its own benefit, but for “the peace and security of the world at large,” in the
Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The law cites Ethiopia’s commitment to cooperation with those fighting terror all over the world, emphasizing its relationships with the African Union and the UN.
After reading past these vows and laudations, however, the true purpose of the law becomes clear. Yes, they are dedicated to fighting terrorists, but who are the terrorists? In what amounts to a bill of attainder, once the legislature designates a person or group as a terrorist or terrorist organization, they lose their legal personality. Any assets or property are forfeited and liquidated immediately, without a judicial determination of guilt. The government can then officially ignore or punish what would otherwise be legitimate actions in a free society, such as lawsuits, protests or speech, as well as the actions of anyone who is deemed to have supported or aided the “terrorists” in any way.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, encouraging terrorism can mean as small an act as showing “moral support” for a person or group deemed terroristic by the legislature. Publishing one’s approval for one of the country’s various ethnic rebel or political forces, for instance, could result in a 10-year minimum prison sentence, since these opposition groups have been declared terroristic in nature. Human Rights Watch states that it knows of 14 people who were arrested under the law in June for belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front. Meles’s regime is built on ethnic federalism, and tends to favor certain ethnic groups, so designating opposition groups made up of the disfavored ethnicities as terrorist organizations helps Meles to stay in power. These designations could help support a future request for foreign military assistance in the event of an uprising, since such people could be characterized as committing terrorist attacks, not fighting for self-determination or democracy. Indeed, the authorization to control people or things threatened by or supportive of this so-called terrorism provides a convenient excuse for breaking up protests, suppressing speech and stripping people of the assets they would need to establish an effective opposition force.
The law takes advantage of this anti-terrorism theme to deprive people of due process in other ways, as well. The Criminal Procedure Code of Ethiopia requires that an individual must be brought before a court of law within 48 hours of arrest, and that detention on remand may be no longer than 14 days. Warrants are required in a manner familiar to US lawyers, and search and seizure provisions are laid out in detail. Even the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation forbids remand for further investigation. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, however, allows detention for as long as four months, and authorities are explicitly permitted to use force to obtain evidence from the accused. Again justifying these actions by pointing to the importance of fighting terrorism, the law authorizes courts to ignore normal rules of evidence when trying suspects. Anonymous intelligence reports containing anonymous statements are admissible, as are all confessions, hearsay and information collected by any foreign entities. The accused are encouraged to name names and describe events in order to reduce their punishment, which could include the death penalty.
Interestingly, Meles’s own political party would have been considered a terrorist organization under his predecessor’s regime, which it overthrew in 1991. Perhaps this legislation is not ironic then, but rather politically shrewd. All around him, other long-time leaders in the region are being called into question, and some have even been removed and detained. Meles may be worried, but perhaps such legal actions are tactical. After all, he knows firsthand how rulers are deposed. He did it once himself.
Abigail Salisbury is a former faculty member at the Mekelle University Law Faculty in Mek’ele, Ethiopia, and has written for JURIST previously on the issue of human rights in Ethiopia. She is a 2007 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.