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Suppression of the Innocent Inside Ethiopia

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Wrapped in dishonesty, arrogance and paranoia, Ethiopia’s ruling regime is following a nationwide policy of violent suppression and constitutional vandalism.

It was the 24th June – midsummer’s day – in the adopted homeland of Andargachew Tsige, when he was detained by ‘Yemeni officials’ (State heavies in suits) whilst transiting through Sana’a to Eritrea. The British citizen and leading Ethiopian political activist was quickly and quietly extradited to Addis Ababa where he was imprisoned on spurious charges of treason or some such trumped up, paranoid twaddle. He had been unfairly tried in absentia in 2009, when Amnesty report he was “sentenced to death for an alleged coup attempt. He was prosecuted in absentia again in 2012 on terrorism charges, alongside other prisoners of conscience, and sentenced to life imprisonment.”

Incarcerated he remains, hidden, abused and tortured by Ethiopian military thugs; his “detention in Ethiopia means that his life and physical integrity are in great danger…his incommunicado detention in an unknown location increases this risk.” says MEP Anna Gomez in a letter to British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond. In keeping with Britain’s consistent abdication of donor duty in the face of the Ethiopian government’s unbridled abuse of its people, the new Secretary of State at the FCO and his lieutenants have done nothing of substance to support Andargachew.

The false arrest, imprisonment and mis-treatment of Andargachew Tsige is but the most high profile recent example of a strategic policy of control and suppression enforced by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). A range of weapons are employed by the regime to stifle dissent and create an atmosphere of fear, including extrajudicial executions, arrest, imprisonment and torture. HRW state the government “regularly use abuse to gather information…. Ethiopian authorities have subjected political detainees to torture and other ill treatment at the main detention center [Maekelawi Police Station] in Addis Ababa.” Journalists who challenge the government are intimidated (so too their families) and silenced. Many have been arrested, and as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, “are languishing in Ethiopia’s prisons on trumped-up terrorism charges for doing their jobs.” In their thorough report “They Want A Confession”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents “serious rights abuses, unlawful interrogation tactics, and poor detention conditions in Maekelawi since 2010. Those detained …include scores of opposition politicians, journalists, protest organizers, and alleged supporters of ethnic insurgencies.” Public assembly, whilst not being outwardly criminalized is effectively banned, despite the fact that it is a right enshrined like all such liberal freedoms in the legally binding constitution. A dusty document which has no influence over the ruling party, or indeed the judiciary, which functions as a docile enforcer of government criminality.

The Guilty Trust Nobody

For a country beset with acute poverty, where it is conservatively estimated 30% of the population (World Bank figures) are living below the ‘official poverty line’ (that’s income of $2 a day), the government somehow manages to administer and fund (to the tune of $340 millions) the largest standing army in Sub-Saharan Africa. They boast 560 tanks, over 80 warplanes, and out of a population numbering 92 million, Global Fire Power reveals, 25 million are armed and ‘fit for service’, with a further 10 million standing by. The men in uniform are kept busy by their political masters – there is a whole nation to suppress and control, including the people of Oromia (who are calling for self-determination) and Amhara. There is the Ogaden region to occupy and forcibly govern, innocent men and women – who seek nothing more threatening than autonomy, their constitutional right – to murder, terrorise and rape. There is Gambella in the far south west and the Lower Omo Valley where women are raped by soldiers, men beaten, indigenous people (who have lived on ancestral land for generations) herded into government camps (the notorious Villagisation project – part funded by Britain and the World Bank) as vast tracts of lands are sold for pennies to international corporations. There is torture to be administered, assassinations to plan and execute, rapes to be performed and surveillance of dissenting voices to be carried out. And spying from villages to cyberspace to keep the EPRDF military men active night and day; duplicitous, disingenuous and corrupt, they trust nobody.

In their detailed study of government surveillance in Ethiopia, “They Know Everything We Do”, HRW found the ruling party “is using foreign technology to bolster its widespread telecom surveillance of opposition activists and journalists both in Ethiopia and abroad,” and unsurprisingly there are no judicial or legislative mechanisms in place to protect privacy. The Chinese multinational ZTE is the primary supplier of telecommunication technology, but HRW discovered that Britain (a major donor, whose unfathomable support of the regime could be said to make Britain complicit in some of the regime’s wide-ranging human rights violations) and Germany have also provided surveillance software and know-how.

The government owns the country’s sole telecommunication company (Ethio Telecommunication); awash with paranoia they control and monitor mobile phone use and Internet access (coverage of which, at around 0.5% is the second lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa) throughout the country. These “surveillance practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and access to information,” HRW state. Security personnel have unfettered access to call records of all telephone users – particular attention is given to foreign numbers. Calls are recorded without legal process or oversight, and replayed “during abusive interrogations in which people who have been arbitrarily detained are accused of belonging to banned organizations.” [Ibid] A former Oromo opposition party member told HRW, that “one day they arrested me and they showed me everything. They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother.” He was arrested for the heinous act of discussing “politics on the phone,” – a criminal activity in this supposedly democratic African nation.

Access to websites that offer independent critical analysis of political events, including opposition party sites, media and bloggers is denied by government controls. The Ethiopian people, both inside the country and within the diaspora are extremely fearful; as a result a great deal of ‘self-censorship’ takes place. People are afraid to call or receive phone calls from abroad (where many have family working), they are reluctant to publicly criticize the government and refrain from discussing a variety of topics openly or during ‘private’ telephone calls. The “main mode of government control is through extensive networks of informants and a grassroots system of surveillance,” HRW report. And in a society where secrecy and mistrust of one another is common, silent suppression and distrust of others is fostered. And where unity is needed – for if there is to be change within the country, the people must come together – community, ethnic and tribal divisions are strengthened. All of course by EPRDF design.

Legalizing Suppression

The legislative weapon of choice used to gag and imprison is the universally condemned 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), which when introduced HRW described as “a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy”; it allows for “long-term imprisonment and even the death penalty for “crimes” that bear no resemblance, under any credible definition, to terrorism.” Since the ATP was written into law, “the independent media have been decimated by politically motivated prosecutions … The government has systematically thwarted attempts by journalists to establish new publications. Blogs and Internet pages critical of the government are regularly blocked, and in 2012 printing houses came under threat for printing publications that criticized the authorities.”

The EPRDF has used this and other repressive laws to decimate civil society organizations and independent media and target individuals with politically motivated prosecutions. It is a paranoid, cruel and violent regime that ignores human rights law, violates its own constitution and is causing extreme suffering amongst its people. And donor countries ¬– America, Britain and the European Union primarily, appear content to ignore wide ranging atrocities (some of which deep inside the Ogaden region for example constitute crimes against humanity), in exchange for what – for the illusion of stability in the centre of a region dominated by failed states and warring fanatics? There is not stability and harmony within Ethiopia, but cruel suppression, terror and simmering anger. Whilst the responsibility for bringing lasting change rests firmly with the people acting in unity, there is no excuse for allowing indeed supporting a regime that throws a dark dank shroud of fear over the country. Responsible allegiance entails holding regimes accountable and supporting the people of the nation state, not the state dictators, defending human rights, insisting on justice and the implementation of federal and international law.

The impunity and arrogance of the EPRDF was blatantly displayed in April this year when, just days before American Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country, “six bloggers for Zone 9, an Amharic-language website whose writers have criticized the government, and three freelance journalists were arrested,” reported the New York Times.

In addition to donor indifference, the wide-ranging human rights violations taking place daily within Ethiopia go virtually unreported. The Ethiopian people repeatedly ask why their plight is not reported, why do donors not act, or use what is assumed to be their considerable influence on the EPRDF leadership. Why, for example, isn’t British citizen Andergachew free? Is it because he is Black, poor, a migrant to Britain born in Ethiopia. They rightly ask why the state terrorism taking place within Oromia, Gambella, the beautiful Lower Omo Valley, and, perhaps worst of all, in the Ogaden region – where murder of the innocent is routine, where men and women are imprisoned without trial, tortured, the women violently mass raped – is allowed to go unchallenged. Legitimate questions passionately asked by a people violently suppressed, living in fear in a corner of Africa, suffering and desperate.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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