Ethiopia is a federal republic. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnically based parties, controls the government. In the 2015 general elections, the EPRDF and affiliated parties won all 547 House of People’s Representatives (HPR – parliament) seats to remain in power for a fifth consecutive five-year term. On February 14, former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation to accelerate political reforms in response to demands from the country’s increasingly restive youth. On February 15, the government declared a State of Emergency (SOE) in response to growing unrest and political uncertainty. During the SOE a Command Post under the direction of the minister of defense held broad powers that, while constitutionally granted, infringed upon human rights by expanding authorities to detain individuals, restrict speech, and restrict movement. On April 2, the parliament selected Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister to lead broad reforms.
It was widely reported that civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over regional security forces. Rural local police and militias sometimes acted independently and extrajudicially. A strong trend toward increased respect for rule of law began under Abiy.
Abiy’s assumption of office was followed by positive changes in the human rights climate. The government decriminalized political movements that had been accused of treason in the past, invited opposition leaders to return to the country and resume political activities, allowed peaceful rallies and demonstrations, enabled the formation and unfettered operation of new political parties and media outlets, continued steps to release thousands of political prisoners, and undertook revisions of repressive laws. On June 5, the parliament voted to lift the SOE.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces and between citizens; forced disappearances by some government forces; torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention by security forces; political prisoners; interference with privacy; censorship and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement; violence against women and children, in part due to government inaction; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and child labor, including worst forms. Both the number and severity of these human rights issues diminished significantly under Abiy’s administration, and in some cases they were no longer an issue by the end of the year.
The government at times did not take steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses, resulting in impunity for violators. The government took positive steps toward greater accountability under Abiy to change the relationship between security forces and the population. In August the federal government arrested former Somali regional president Abdi Mohamoud Omar on human rights grounds. On June 18, the prime minister spoke to the nation and apologized on behalf of the government for decades of mistakes and abuse he said amounted to terrorist acts.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government and its representatives committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. Security forces used excessive force against civilians.
A July 31 report from the independent nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Council (HRCO) that documented field investigations in 26 districts across seven zones in the Oromia and Somali Regions found that federal and regional security forces, as well as mobs of local youth, killed 733 citizens between January 2017 and January 2018.
On April 8, during the SOE, a military officer in Qobo town, East Haraghe Zone of Oromia Region, reportedly severely assaulted, shot, and killed 20-year-old Ayantu Mohammed, a mother of one who was three months’ pregnant, after abducting her from the street. According to a local media report, neighbors found Ayantu’s body dumped in their neighborhood the following day. Local police reported they disarmed and arrested the suspected military officer.
On August 4, violence reportedly involving regional security forces left at least 30 citizens dead in Jijiga, capital of the Somali Region, and nearby towns. In cascading violence shortly thereafter, communal violence in Dire Dawa left 14 individuals dead, including a woman and her four children, according to an August 7 press release by HRCO. On August 12, a heavily armed group of Somali Region’s special police force, sometimes referred to as the Liyu, attacked residents in Mayu Muluke District in East Hararghe Zone, Oromia, killing 40 persons and injuring 40. Oromia Region’s government spokesperson told local media that the attackers took orders from individuals opposing the federal government.
The government held individuals, including minors, temporarily incommunicado during the SOE. According to a July 31 HRCO report, nine adult residents of West Hararghe Zone, Oromia Region, disappeared following attacks by Somali Region’s special police force. Liyu officers abducted these individuals from their homes or the street. Due to poor prison administration, family members reported individuals missing who were allegedly in custody/remand, but could not be located.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were reports that security officials tortured and otherwise abused detainees.
In October 2017 the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a government human rights body, issued a report on its investigation following formal complaints from inmates that prison officials and police officers committed human rights violations, including torture, at the Shoa Robit Federal Prison between September and November 2016. The inmates told the EHRC that prison officials in Shoa Robit Prison subjected them to electric shocks, severe beatings, hanging heavy water bottles from genitals, handcuffing and tying inmates to beds, and soaking them with water. Muslim inmates reported the officers shouted anti-Muslim words and further harassed, threatened, and intimidated them based on their religious beliefs. Twelve inmates reported officers singled them out, handcuffed them, and tied them to their beds from September 22 until November 19, 2016. The EHRC investigation documented several body injuries on 16 inmates. These marks included deeply scarred hands and legs, broken fingers, marks left by extended handcuffing, flogging marks on the back, mutilated nails, broken arms, and head injuries. The team cross-referenced these marks with the body marks registered in the intake files of each inmate and concluded these injuries occurred in prison.
During a court session in December 2017, inmates criticized the report for documenting torture of only 16 inmates, claiming 176 inmates were tortured in Shoa Robit Prison. They also objected to the report’s failure to hold prison officials or Federal Police officers who carried out the torture accountable for their actions. The report’s failure to determine who was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the documented torture undermined the credibility of the EHRC in the eyes of prison reform activists.
In July Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report documenting torture, rape, long-term arbitrary detention, and inhuman detention conditions in Jijiga Central Prison between 2011 and early this year. Many of the former prisoners interviewed said they saw detainees dying in their cells after officials abused them. Former female prisoners reported multiple incidents of rape. Prison guards and the region’s special police allegedly brutalized prisoners, at the behest of regional authorities. According to HRW the prison was subject to virtually no oversight. The cycle of abuse, humiliating treatment, overcrowding, inadequate food, sleep deprivation, and lack of health care in Jijiga Central Prison, also referred to as Jail Ogaden, was consistent with the government’s long-standing collective punishment of persons who were perceived to support the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), previously designated by the government as a terrorist organization, a designation removed in June.
Multiple sources reported general mistreatment of detainees at official detention centers, unofficial detention centers, police stations, and in Kilinto federal prison. Interrogators administered beatings and electric shocks to extract information and confessions from detainees. Police investigators used physical and psychological abuse to extract confessions.
On April 6, following through on a January 3 EPRDF decision under the leadership of the former prime minister, the government announced the closure of Maekelawi, the federal crime investigation and detention center in Addis Ababa and the site of many reports of prisoner abuse in past years. Officials transferred the detainees in the center to another facility.
The United Nations reported it received one allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse against a peacekeeper from Ethiopia deployed with the UN Mission in Liberia. The case alleged sexual exploitation (exploitative relationship). Investigations by both the United Nations and Ethiopia were pending.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. There were reports that authorities physically abused prisoners in detention centers, military facilities, and police stations. Problems included gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation, and medical care. Pretrial detention often occurred in police station detention facilities, where conditions varied widely and where reports stated there was poor hygiene and police abuse of detainees.
During the SOE the government operated detention centers in six zones–Addis Ababa, Hawassa, Dire Dawa, Nekemte, Bahir Dar, and Semera. In March the State of Emergency Inquiry Board announced the SOE Command Post detained 1,107 individuals in the six zones. The main reasons given by the government for these arrests included murder, destruction of public service utilities, road blockade, demolishing of public documents, trafficking illegal firearms, and inciting activities that cause ethnic conflicts. Although conditions varied, problems of gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation, and medical care were common at sites holding SOE detainees.
Physical Conditions: Severe overcrowding was common, especially in prison sleeping quarters. For example, in 2016 the EHRC visited a prison cell in Shoa Robit Federal Prison and found that its two small windows did not allow enough light into the estimated 40-square-meter (430-square-foot) cell, which was extremely small to house 38 inmates. Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults. Prison officials generally separated male and female prisoners, although mixing occurred at some facilities. Medical attention following physical abuse was insufficient in some cases.
The government budgeted approximately nine birr ($0.32) per prisoner per day for food, water, and health care, although this amount varied across the country. According to the World Bank, the country’s per capita GDP was $1.50 per day. Many prisoners supplemented this support with daily food deliveries from family members or by purchasing food from local vendors. Reports noted officials prevented some prisoners from receiving food from their families, and some families did not know of their relatives’ locations. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional ones. Prisoners had only limited access to potable water. Water shortages caused unhygienic conditions, and most prisons lacked appropriate sanitary facilities. Many prisoners had serious health problems but received little or no treatment. There were reports prison officials denied some prisoners access to needed medical care.
Visitors to political prisoners and other sources reported political prisoners often faced significantly different treatment compared with other prisoners. Allegations included lack of access to proper medication or medical treatment, lack of access to books or television, and denial of exercise time.
Administration: In July the government fired five federal prison officials following state media reports of allegations of abuse. There were reports that prisoners mistreated by prison guards did not have access to prison administrators or ombudspersons to register their complaints. Legal aid clinics operated in some prisons. At the regional level, these clinics had good working relations with judicial, prison, and other government officials. Prison officials allowed some detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, but courts sometimes declined to hear such complaints.
The law generally provides visitor access for prisoners. Authorities, however, denied some indicted defendants visits with their lawyers or with representatives of their political parties. In some cases police did not allow pretrial detainees access to visitors, including family members and legal counsel. Prison regulations stipulate that lawyers representing persons charged with terrorism offenses may visit only one client per day, and only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Authorities denied family members’ access to persons charged with terrorist activity.
Officials permitted religious observance by prisoners, but this varied by prison and even by section within a prison. There were allegations authorities denied detainees adequate locations in which to pray.
Independent Monitoring: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited prisons throughout the country during the year as part of its normal activities. During the SOE access to prisoners was limited, but once the SOE was lifted in June, the ICRC enjoyed improved access to multiple prisons. The government did not permit access to prisons by other international human rights organizations.
Regional authorities allowed government and NGO representatives to meet with prisoners without third parties present. The EHRC monitored federal and regional detention centers and interviewed prison officials and prisoners in response to allegations of widespread human rights abuses. The NGO Justice for All-Prison Fellowship Ethiopia (JPA-PFE) had access to multiple prison and detention facilities around the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention; however, SOE regulations allowed law enforcement officers to arrest and detain individuals without a court warrant and hold detainees for longer than prescribed under normal, non-SOE legal precedents. There were reports of hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions related to the SOE targeting protesters, professors, university students, musicians, businesspersons, health workers, journalists, children, and others.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Federal Police report to the newly created Ministry of Peace as of October and are subject to parliamentary oversight. That oversight was limited. Each of the nine regions has a regional or special police force that reports to regional civilian authorities. Local militias operated across the country in loose and varying coordination with these regional police, the Federal Police, and the military. In some cases militias functioned as extensions of the ruling party. Local militias are members of a community who handle standard security matters within their communities, primarily in rural areas. Local government authorities provided select militia members with very basic training. Militia members serve as a bridge between the community and local police by providing information and enforcing rules. The military played an expanded role with respect to internal security during the SOE.
Impunity remained a problem, including for killings and other violence against protesters. An internal investigation process existed within the police forces, although officials acknowledged that it was inadequate, and there were continued efforts to reform and modernize these internal mechanisms. There were no public reports documenting internal investigations of the federal police for possible abuses during the SOE. The government rarely disclosed the results of investigations into abuses by local security forces, such as arbitrary detention and beatings of civilians.
The government supported limited training on human rights for police and army personnel. It accepted assistance from NGOs and the EHRC to improve and professionalize training on human rights by including more material on the constitution and international human rights treaties and conventions. Additionally, the Ethiopian National Defense Force routinely conducted training on human rights, protection of civilians, gender-based violence, and other courses at the Peace Support Training Center in Addis Ababa.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution and law require detainees to appear before the court and face charges within 48 hours of arrest or as soon thereafter as local circumstances and communications permit. Travel time to the court is not included in this 48-hour period. With a warrant authorities may detain persons suspected of serious offenses for 14 days without charge and for additional and renewable 14-day periods during a pending investigation. The courts allowed security officials to continue investigations for more than 14 days without bringing formal charges against suspects.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), police may request to detain persons without charge for 28-day periods, up to a maximum of four months, during an investigation. The law permits warrantless arrests for various offenses including “flagrant offenses.” These include suspects apprehended while committing an offense, attempting to commit an offense, or having just completed an offense.
The law prohibits detention in any facility other than an official detention center; however, local militias and other formal and informal law enforcement entities operated an unknown number of unofficial detention centers.
A functioning bail system was in place. Bail was not available for persons charged with terrorism, murder, treason, and corruption. In other cases the courts set bail between 500 and 10,000 birr ($18 and $357), which most citizens could not afford. The government provided public defenders for detainees unable to afford private legal counsel, but defendants received these services only when their cases went to court and not during the critical pretrial phases. In some cases a single defense counsel represented multiple defendants in a single case. There were reports that while some detainees were in pretrial detention, authorities allowed them little or no contact with legal counsel, did not provide full information on their health status, and did not allow family visits. There were reports officials sequestered prisoners for weeks at a time and placed civilians under house arrest for undisclosed periods.
The constitution requires authorities under an SOE to announce the names of detainees within one month of their arrest. Authorities generally published the names of those detained under the SOE but not always within the 30-day period. Civilians were not always able to locate the rosters of names of those imprisoned.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities regularly detained persons arbitrarily, including protesters, journalists, and opposition party members. There were hundreds of reports of arbitrary arrest by security forces.
On March 25, government security forces arrested journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesgen Desalegn; bloggers Mahlet Fantahun, Befekadu Hailu, Zelalem Workagegnehu, and Fekadu Mahetemework; and activists Andualem Arage, Addisu Getaneh, Yidnekachew Addis, Tefera Tesfaye, and Woynshet Molla while they gathered at the residence of journalist Temesgen Desalegn in Addis Ababa for the improper display of the national flag. Police first took the 11 to a police station in Addis’ Jemo District but transferred them to another station in Gotera-Pepsi area during the night. On April 5, authorities released the 11 detainees in Addis Ababa without formal charges.
According to a March 31 statement from the SOE Inquiry Board, security forces detained 1,107 individuals suspected of violating the SOE rules.
Pretrial Detention: Some detainees reported indefinite detention for several years without charge or trial. The percentage of the inmate population in pretrial detention and average length of time held was not available. Lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, and staffing shortages contributed to frequent trial delays, in some cases years. SOE regulations allowed authorities to detain a person without a court order until the end of the SOE. At the conclusion of the SOE, several hundred individuals remained remanded and awaiting trial.
Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law requires officials to inform detainees of the nature of their arrest within a specific period time, which varies based on the severity of the allegation. It also provides persons accused of or charged with a crime the ability to appeal. During the year no cases were brought to the courts by individuals claiming unlawful detention. There were reports of hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions related to the SOE. The criminal law does not provide compensation for unlawfully detained persons.
Amnesty: The federal and regional governments released 9,702 prisoners in the six weeks following the former prime minister’s announcement of prisoner releases on January 3. During these weeks the government released the vast majority of imprisoned high-profile opposition politicians, journalists, and activists.
The federal attorney general dropped charges and/or granted pardons to 744 individuals charged with or convicted of crimes of terrorism and corruption. Of that number, 576 were convicted and serving prison terms, while 168 were still on trial. The majority, more than 500, walked out of prisons on May 29. The justifications provided by the government for the releases included remorse by the convicts, abatement of the threat to society, and ability to contribute to the continued widening of political space. Senior opposition politicians, journalists, activists, and government officials charged with terrorism and corruption were included in those released.
On May 29, authorities released Ethiopian-born British citizen Andargachew Tsige, second in command of Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7), a former government-designated terror organization delisted in June, on a “pardon under special circumstances.” Detained in 2014, Andargachew was serving two life sentences and was sentenced to the death penalty.
On July 20, the HPR, in an emergency session passed a bill providing amnesty for individuals and groups under investigation, on trial, or convicted of various crimes. The law applies to persons and organizations convicted of crimes committed before June 7. The federal attorney general announced that those seeking amnesty must register within six months from July 23. On August 23, the federal attorney general announced 650 prisoners in four federal prisons benefitted from releases via either a pardon or the granting of amnesty. The government granted amnesty to more than 200 of these prisoners in accordance with the amnesty proclamation.
In September, in keeping with a long-standing tradition of issuing pardons at the Ethiopian New Year, four regional governments released 8,875 persons. Prisoners who had served a third of their sentences, female prisoners with babies, the elderly, and those with serious health problems primarily benefitted from the pardon. Prisoners sentenced to death and those convicted of corruption, kidnapping, or rape did not qualify for Ethiopian New Year’s pardons.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to political influence.
Under the constitution accused persons have the right to a fair public trial without undue delay, a presumption of innocence, legal counsel of their choice, appeal, the right not to self-incriminate, the right to present witnesses and evidence in their defense, and cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The law requires translation services provided in a language defendants understand. The federal courts have staff working as interpreters for major local languages and are required to hire interpreters for defendants that speak other languages.
Detainees did not always enjoy all these rights, and as a result defense attorneys were sometimes unprepared to provide adequate defense. The courts did not always presume a defendant’s innocence, allow defendants to communicate with an attorney of their choice, provide timely public defense, or provide access to government-held evidence. Defendants were often unaware of the specific charges against them until the commencement of their trials. There were reports of authorities subjecting detainees to abuse while in detention to obtain information or confessions.
The federal Public Defender’s Office provided legal counsel to indigent defendants, but the scope and quality of service were inadequate due to a shortage of attorneys. A public defender often handles more than 100 cases and may represent multiple defendants in a single case. Numerous free legal aid clinics, primarily based at universities, provided legal services. In certain areas of the country, the law allows volunteers, such as law students and professors, to represent clients in court on a pro bono basis. There was no bar association or other standardized criminal defense representation.
The constitution recognizes both religious and traditional courts. Many citizens residing in rural areas had little access to formal judicial systems and relied on traditional mechanisms for resolving conflict. By law all parties to a dispute must agree to use a traditional or religious court before such a court may hear a case, and either party may appeal to a regular court at any time. Sharia (Islamic law) courts may hear religious and family cases involving Muslims if both parties agree to use the sharia court before the formal legal process begins. Sharia courts received some funding from the government. These sharia courts adjudicated a majority of cases in the Somali and Afar Regions, which are predominantly Muslim. Other traditional systems of justice, such as councils of elders, functioned predominantly in rural areas. Some women felt they lacked access to free and fair hearings in the traditional court system because local custom excluded them from participation in councils of elders and due to persistent gender discrimination.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no high-profile political prisoners at year’s end, because the government dropped charges and/or granted pardons to more than ten thousand individuals charged and convicted with crimes of terrorism and corruption.
Authorities released Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) chairperson Merera Gudina on January 17, following a decision by the attorney general to discontinue the multiple criminal charges against him. In 2017 the attorney general brought multiple criminal charges against Merera and four others, including Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega and diaspora-based Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed.
In February the federal attorney general dropped pending charges against remaining members of the Zone 9 blogging group Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berhane, and Befekadu Hailu. In 2017 the Supreme Court downgraded the charges against the three bloggers from terrorism to criminal provocation of the public. Officials also released Bekele Gerba, OFC deputy chair, on February 13, after prosecutors dropped charges against him and his codefendants for leading protests against plans to expand the city of Addis Ababa.
On May 29, the attorney general withdrew charges against diaspora-based Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega and Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, as well as their respective media organizations Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio and Oromo Media Network.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law provides citizens the right to appeal in civil court, including in cases with human rights violations. For rights violations where a government agency is the accused perpetrator, the victim initiates the process by filing a complaint at the EHRC. Parliament created the EHRC in 2000, and it continued to fund and provide oversight over the commission. The EHRC investigates and makes recommendations to the concerned government agency. Citizens did not file any human rights violations under this system, primarily due to a lack of evidence and a lack of faith in their ability to secure an impartial verdict in these types of cases.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law generally requires authorities to obtain court-issued search warrants prior to searching private property. Under the SOE court, approval for searches was suspended. Security officials had to provide a reason to the individual or household subject to the search, an official identification card, and have a community member accompany them before conducting a search. Separate from the SOE, the law also recognizes exceptions for “hot pursuit” cases in which a suspect enters a premises or disposes of items that are the subject of an offense committed on the premises. This legal exception also applies when police have reasonable suspicion that evidence of a crime punishable by more than three years’ imprisonment is concealed on or in the property and a delay in obtaining a search warrant would allow the evidence to be removed. Moreover, the ATP law permits warrantless searches of a person or vehicle when authorized by the director general of the Federal Police, his designee, or a police officer who has reasonable suspicion that a terrorist act may be committed and deems a sudden search necessary.
Opposition political party leaders and journalists reported suspicions of telephone tapping, other electronic eavesdropping, and surveillance, and they stated government agents attempted to lure them into illegal acts by calling and pretending to be representatives of previously designated terrorist groups.
The government used a widespread system of paid informants to report on the activities of individuals. Opposition members, journalists, and athletes reported ruling party operatives and militia members made intimidating and unwelcome visits to their homes and offices. These intimidating contacts included entry and searches of homes without a warrant.
There were reports that authorities dismissed opposition members from their jobs and that those not affiliated with the EPRDF sometimes had trouble receiving the “support letters” from their kebeles (neighborhoods or wards) necessary to obtain employment (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).