Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Eritrea and Ethiopia - Human Rights

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In the aftermath of the eruption of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Ethiopian regime launched a massive campaign of violence and hate against Eritrean nationals residing in Ethiopia. Since the beginning of June 18, the regime has embarked upon a policy of mass detention, torture and expulsion of Eritreans living in the country. The manner the Eritreans were treated throughout the process is so deplorable that there are few parallels in recent history of human rights violation carried out by any state government. The actions of the Ethiopian regime were carried out in violation of the basic provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties. Eritrean victims were arrested, deported, put in detention facilities, killed, and torn away from their families. The inhumane treatment to which the Eritrean deportees have been subjected during the process of arrest, detention and expulsion is gruesome. They were suddenly apprehended from their homes, work places, schools and streets and driven off to detention camps and police stations. Those that were picked up from their place of work or streets were not allowed to communicate with their families or any close acquaintances to inform them of their whereabouts. In the case of others, they were picked up from their sleep by armed police who broke into their homes in the middle of the night. They were similarly prevented from picking up any personal belongings and even from putting on their proper dress. They ended up in detention with only their pajamas and slippers on.

Mothers were taken from their children during the arrest. Many reported that they could not bid farewell to their children who had not returned from schools when they were taken away. Despite their plea to take their children along, almost all mothers were harshly denied to carry even the breast fed infants whom they were forced to abandon crying and without any one to look after. A mother whose six-month old baby was snatched off and abandoned arrived delerious and agonized from swollen breasts. Another woman who left four children behind without any one to look after them suffered from mental breakdown and was taken to a mental hospital.Owners of garages, hotels, shops and other establishments were forced to leave their businesses open and prone to pillage and theft. None of them were able to delegate responsibility for his or her property, establishments and other interests. As the wave of arrest and eviction continued, the Ethiopian Government issued instruction preventing Ethiopian nationals from acting as delegates to any Eritrean national.

Once the Eritreans were taken to the detention centers, they were subjected to interrogation, torture and deprivation of food, water, basic sanitation and visit by or communication with their families and relatives. Usually, they were crammed into dark narrow cells without toilet facilities. They were allowed to visit the toilets only once in twenty four hours. The detainees were forced to buy their own food or drinkable water which they scarcely managed to obtain from the prison guards at much higher prices. Since they were not allowed to take money and other possessions at the time of their apprehension, many of them could not afford to buy any food or drink in detention. Hence, as a combined result of hunger, torture, poor sanitary conditions and grief, most of the deportees arrived in horrible health conditions. During detention, some of them were kept in the open air exposed to heavy rain and extreme cold temperatures. Others were detained in containers where 40-50 people were tightly compressed in a single 10 feet container. Before they were finally expelled, most of the deportees were kept for durations ranging between three and thirty days, without any charges brought against them, under terrible and extremely unhealthy detention conditions. The manner in which these people were transported is also horrendous. Although most of the deportees could have been air-lifted, they were forced to go through long arduous and exhausting routes, loaded on buses which speeded off for 4 days and nights. Except for some 24- hours a day when they had to stop for fueling or other needs of the drivers, the deportees could not stretch their legs inside the crowded buses to which they were confined all the way through. The deportees, including their families and relatives, were kept in the dark so they would not know the route they were taking. This cruel act was devised in order to increase the anxiety and sufferings of both the deportees and their families, as well as to make it difficult for the people to arrange meeting places with their families. As a result of the heat, exhaustion and depression, they sustained severe health problems.

Ethiopia launched a massive attack against Eritrea and successfully retook disputed territories that Eritrea had occupied at the beginning of the war, while seriously weakening the military capacity of its former ally. The two countries agreed to a cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The two-year conflict was estimated to have killed and wounded tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and uprooted nearly a million people. Displaced Eritreans fleeing the fighting credibly reported the involvement of the Ethiopian army in large scale destruction and looting of civilian property, the harassment of civilians, particularly men of military age, and in a high incidence of rape. By early 2000, Ethiopian authorities, citing broad threats to national security, had forcibly expelled some 70,000 Ethiopians of Eritrean origin to Eritrea. The government arbitrarily seized those of Eritrean descent, held them in harsh detention conditions and allowed no challenge to their expulsion. An estimated forty thousand Ethiopian residents of Eritrea returned to Ethiopia under force in the months that followed the outbreak of hostilities. Eritrean authorities jailed thousands of Ethiopian residents under harsh conditions in the wake of Ethiopias offensive in May, citing unspecified threats to national security, and the need to protect the incarcerated from angry mobs. By the end of June, in addition to the tens of thousands who had fled at the onset of the war, some 4,600 Ethiopian residents left Eritrea after their release from weeks of confinement. Their repatriation occurred under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), acting as a mutually accepted neutral intermediary. Eritrea also repatriated several thousand Ethiopian residents without prior coordination with the ICRC and their government.

Elections went ahead on May 14, two days after Ethiopia launched its largest military offensive against Eritrea since the beginning of the war. The government denied claims that the timing was meant to give an advantage to its ruling coalition, and said it needed no such assistance to win the elections. Independent opposition parties and coalitions of ethnically based groups opposed to the government continued to face severe government restrictions that limited their ability to freely compete in elections. On October 10, in its first sitting, the new parliament reelected Meles Zenawi prime minister for a five-year term. Allegations of fraud and violence marred the May elections, particularly in rural areas. The independent monitoring group Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) reported election related incidents of abuse of opposition candidates and supporters, including killings, the arbitrary detention of opposition candidates and their transfer or dismissal from employment, and incidents involving the wounding of opposition supporters by gunshots. EHRCO also reported in February that Ethiopians of Eritrean descent who remained in the country could not participate in the May elections because authorities questioned their citizenship. In early March, Beyene Petros, chairman of the opposition Southern Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC), accused the ruling regime of subjecting members of his party to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. After the polling started, Petros complained that police had killed seven SEPDC supporters who were protesting against electoral fraud outside two polling stations in the south. Responding to incidents of irregularities and violence, the election board nullified election results in sixteen districts in the southern region and organized fresh elections a month later.

The Ethiopian government continued to restrict the freedom of speech and the press. Twenty-seven Ethiopian journalists lived in exile, having fled their homeland due to repeated arrests and ill-treatment in detention. Among the latest to flee, in February, was Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of the Amharic weekly Fiameta, and member of the executive committee of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA). The government only recognized EFPJA in March, seven years after the independent association first submitted its application for registration. The government held another thirty-one journalists in jail during 2000, having released them on very high bail pending court hearings. In mid-August, sudden increases in printing costs, by more than a third, put additional pressures on some thirty-six private publications as well as the government press. The private newspapers went on strike from September 11-17, and warned that the high production costs could eventually force them out of print. They urged the government to reduce taxation on imported paper and other printing costs.

There was a marked deterioration of civil liberties in Ethiopia during 2001 in the wake of the war with Eritrea. The government jailed civil rights advocates, political rivals, students, and journalists without formal charges, and police used lethal force against unarmed civilians. In July, the foreign minister told journalists that conditions in Ethiopia were not conducive for liberal democracy. The minister of education acknowledged that Ethiopias justice system had major deficiencies. Government agencies, she said, interfered in the justice system. The system also often abused its authority and lacked transparency and accountability. The judiciary was wrongfully associated with the governments violations of human rights. The courts routinely granted extensions allowing individuals to be held in detention without formal charges and without bail while the police investigated, usually at a snails pace. Court hearings convened every several weeks, only to have the court permit the police to investigate for months. Court cases historically lasted for years, during which time activists and government critics, apparently held only for their nonviolent criticism of the government, endured harsh detention conditions. Sometimes charges were eventually dropped; sometimes prisoners were released after months of captivity without charge or trial.

University students in April 2001 protested the governments interference with academic freedom. The students main demands were permission to republish a banned student magazine, dismissal of two university administrators closely affiliated with the government, and removal of security troops stationed inside the university campus. While the government initially conceded the first two demands, it did not commit to a schedule for removing the security forces. When students continued to press their demands, the minister of education issued an ultimatum threatening students who did not return to classes with arrest. The security forces efforts to enforce the ultimatum set off clashes on April 17 and 18 that quickly got out of hand as non-students joined in the protests. In suppressing the protest, the police used excessive force, including live ammunition, and conducted massive arrests. At the end of the two days, over forty civilians, primarily students, had been killed and another four hundred injured. Other campuses also witnessed antigovernment protests. The government immediately detained almost 1,000 students; although most were quickly released, several hundred were shipped to prisons two hundred kilometers or more from the capital. Aside from those arrested, over one hundred students fled to Kenya and another seventy or so to Djibouti. Because of the mass arrests, prisons became severely overcrowded. While no independent observers were allowed in to monitor prison conditions, prisoners who were subsequently released complained of poor sanitation, leading to the proliferation of water and air-borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and tuberculosis. The Eritrean war weakened economic resources that could have been used to improve the conditions of the civilian population. The Ethiopian government announced that the war cost the impoverished country U.S. $ billion, including the expense of prosecuting the war and the expense of rebuilding and resettlement once the war ended. A local research institute reported that the war had a devastating impact on civilian life through displacement, loss of livestock and stored food grains, and the destruction of houses, social infrastructure, and commercial enterprises. The institute estimated the cost of lost social infrastructure alone to be well over $100 million. Income also dropped as tourism and international investment and aid fell.

In early May, about two weeks after the police actions involving university students, the police arrested two leading human liberties activists, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega. They were both charged with having incited the students to riot. The government produced no evidence then or since to substantiate the claims. Mesfin was the founder and first president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO). On the day of the arrests, the government raided and sealed the EHRCO offices. EHRCO was founded in 2011 to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and to document human rights abuses. The government refused to recognize the EHRCO until May 1, and often harassed those engaged in its monitoring activities. While in prison, Mesfin and Berhanu began a hunger strike. This, together with considerable international publicity and pressure, may have facilitated their release on bail in June after a month of captivity. After their release, the EHRCO was allowed to reopen. Harassment of organizations established to monitor and advance civil liberties also extended to other activists. In August, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) mounted a peaceful demonstration with several hundred participants to demand that rape laws be strengthened and more aggressively enforced. At about the same time, it received extensive media coverage for its letter to a local newspaper protesting the ministry of justices failure to prosecute an alleged sexual assault by the son of a prominent family. Shortly thereafter, the ministry of justice suspended EWLAs charter and froze its bank accounts. It announced that EWLAs activitys exceeded its charter, without offering details. In mid-October, a trial court ordered the release of ELWAs frozen accounts and the Justice Ministry - under a new minister - restored ELWAs license.

Implementation of the peace agreement progressed relatively well, but both parties repeatedly showed no attempt at a compromise. The Security Council in Resolution 16 (2001) passed in September extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) - a mission to monitor and help implement the cease-fire agreement - to March 15, 00, and called on the parties to settle all outstanding issues. These included Ethiopias reluctance to supply maps detailing the location of its minefields in Eritrea. About 70,000 internally displaced Eritreans still could not be resettled because of the danger of land mines. Eritrea was accused of infiltrating militia into its side of the buffer zone in violation of the cease-fire agreement but confirmation was difficult because Eritrea restricted the movement of UNMEE monitors. UNMEE reported that no Ethiopian troops remained in the temporary security zone separating the two countries. Both countries continued to evict those identified as the others nationals, causing great suffering to the victims and their kin, and blatantly violating international human rights laws in the process. UNMEE Security Council Resolution 18 (2000) imposed an arms embargo on the two parties, but had little success in its effort. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child gave Ethiopia a mixed review in 2001. It applauded the governments adoption of a new Family Code. It also welcomed the interim prohibition on the use of corporal punishment in schools but expressed disappointment that the ban had not been implemented. It identified ongoing abuses in violation of Ethiopias own constitution. Many children continued to be subject to the adult justice system because neither a juvenile court nor a juvenile detention facility existed outside the capital; children were often exploited for child labor; and large numbers of children lived and worked in the streets without access to education, health care, or nutrition. The U.N. report echoed an April EHRCO report on the increasing number of abandoned children in Ethiopian cities. In addition, rapes of young girls were common; even when reported, they were usually lightly punished, if at all.

Human rights conditions in Ethiopia did not drastically improve in 2000. In southern Ethiopia they significantly worsened Police shot into groups of civilians and conducted mass arrests. Arbitrary arrests, however, were not confined to the south. Those who were arrested were subjected to prison conditions that did not meet international standards and some prisoners were tortured. Courts rarely intervened to stop human rights abuses. The print media was allowed to publish but was frequently harassed. The ruling coalition Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi maintained a firm grip over the federal and state governments. Local elections were subject to intimidation and fraud. The EPRDF also continued to exert control over the judiciary. The government continued to crack down on teachers who criticized changes in education policy and supported the banned Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA). ETA continued to work to protect teachers rights despite the fact that the government had created a puppet organization with the same name, seized the original organizations funds, and sealed parts of its offices. Seven teachers who supported ETA were arrested in May in Sendafa and held for two months on illegitimate charges, and more than forty teachers who attended a February ETA conference on education for HIV/AIDS were arrested and held for two weeks when they returned home. Between August and October authorities interrupted and dispersed ETA meetings. Government officials threatened teachers with dismissal or with holding of salary if they failed to disassociate themselves from ETA. EHRCO, the most prominent human rights group, issued a number of reports on human rights violations in 2000, including on the shootings and arrests in Tepi, Awassa, and Oromiya; on forced roundups of street children who were then dumped in a remote forest; and on abuses against deportees from Eritrea. Two leading members of EHRCO who had been arrested and bailed in 2001, charged with inciting university students to riot, appeared in court periodically in 2000 but a trial on the merits had not begun at this writing. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which like EHRCO had been temporarily shut down by the government in 2001, faced no government interference in 2000.

An independent boundary commission established as part of the December 1 cease-fire agreement released a report with preliminary findings in April. The report generally rejected Ethiopian claims including the claim to the village of Badme, where the war had started. Both countries initially announced that they accepted the commissions decision, but in June the Ethiopian government defied the ruling by voluntarily resettling 2010 people from central Tigray to Badme. The U.N. Security Council extended until March 15, 2000 the mandate of the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor the cease-fire agreement. The border remained calm except for occasional tense confrontations by local civilians and militia with UNMEE peacekeepers. In April 2000, the Ethiopian government accused the UNMEE force commander of bias after he drove foreign journalists into Badme from Eritrea, and refused to meet with him thereafter. The U.N. replaced him in October. The U.N. Emergencies Unit reported in February that some areas, notably in eastern Tigray, were still uninhabitable due to the presence of landmines. While no demining had started in Ethiopia, two demining companies were trained, and some survey work had started. In April, after many months of prodding, Ethiopia provided detailed maps of mines its forces had laid in Eritrea to UNMEE. There was a significant decrease in deaths and injuries from landmines and unexploded ordinance from the previous year. Nevertheless, from June to August alone, twelve people were injured and four killed in eleven incidents.

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