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 (parliament) seats to remain in power for a fifth consecutive five-year term. In 2015 parliament elected Hailemariam Desalegn to his first full mandate as prime minister. Hailemariam assumed that office in 2012 after the death of his predecessor. Government restrictions severely limited independent observation of the general election vote. A mission from the African Union, the sole international institution or organization permitted to observe the voting, called the elections “calm, peaceful, and credible.” Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an environment conducive to a free and fair election was not in place prior to the election. There were reports of unfair government tactics, including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, and violence before and after the election that resulted in at least six deaths.
It was widely reported that civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over security forces. Local police in rural areas and local militias sometimes acted independently.
In October 2016 parliament imposed a State of Emergency (SOE) and extended it in March. According to the SOE, an executive body called the Command Post managed security policy under the leadership of the minister of defense. During the SOE the Command Post held broad powers, including the ability to detain individuals, restrict speech, and restrict movement. On August 4, parliament voted to end the SOE, which took effect immediately.
The most significant human rights issues included: arbitrary deprivation of life, disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention by security forces; denial of a fair public trial; infringement of privacy rights; restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, internet, assembly, association, and movement; lack of accountability in cases involving rape and violence against women; and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
The government generally did not take steps to prosecute or otherwise punish officials who committed human rights abuses other than corruption. Impunity was a problem; there was an extremely limited number of prosecutions of security force members or officials for human rights abuses during the year.
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 agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. Security forces used excessive force against civilians. A May 28 report from the independent NGO Human Rights Council (HRCO) that conducted field investigations covering 32 districts in 16 zones from Oromia, Amhara, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), as well as Addis Ababa city, stated government security forces killed 19 citizens between the start of the SOE in October 2016 and May. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in April reported to parliament that 669 persons died and more than a thousand persons were injured in the 2016 protests in Oromia, Amhara, and SNNPR. Other NGO reports stated a higher number of casualties. In late February and March, weeks-long raids by armed militiamen from the Somali region reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 100 civilians in bordering East Hararge, West Hararge, Bale, and Guji zones of Oromia region. Oromia region’s Communications Office confirmed the raids and subsequent deaths but did not give figures.
Individuals, including children, arrested by security forces during the SOE temporarily were held incommunicado. The government announced plans to disclose names of SOE detainees in November 2016, but this effort was not comprehensive. According to a May HRCO report, authorities used local government offices, colleges, training centers, and military training camps throughout the country as temporary detention centers.
Due to poor prison administration, family members reported individuals missing who were in custody of prison officials, but whom the families could not locate.
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 its May report HRCO reported that victims testified authorities hung SOE detainees by their feet and tortured them during interrogations. Detainees in Finote Selam Prison in Amhara region told HRCO investigators that prison officials beat and tortured detainees and immersed some in latrine pits full of human feces. The report stated maltreatment of members of the Oromo and Amhara ethnicities, and some religious minorities, occurred.
The HRCO reported authorities kept several SOE detainees in overcrowded detention centers without sufficient food, water, medical care, toilets, and other facilities. Authorities did not permit these detainees to have visitors. It also found that detainees in several detention centers experienced inhuman treatment including beatings/whippings, forced physical exercises, and denial of food. Authorities forced detainees in Awash Arba to walk barefoot and sit exposed to the sun for three consecutive days.
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 in Maekelawi, the federal crime investigation center in Addis Ababa that often held high-profile political prisoners. Authorities restricted access by diplomats and NGOs to Maekelawi; some NGOs reported limited access.
As of October 23, the United Nations reported that it had received one allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse against Ethiopian peacekeepers during the year. The allegation of transactional sex, made against one member of the military contingent serving with the UN Mission in South Sudan, was alleged to have taken place at an unspecified time in 2016. As of October 23, the investigation was pending identification of the personnel involved.
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. There also were many unofficial detention centers throughout the country, including in Dedessa, Bir Sheleko, Tolay, Hormat, Blate, Tatek, Jijiga, Holeta, and Senkele. Observers were denied access to these facilities. Activists detained in some of these centers during the SOE reported overcrowding, inadequate food and water, and poor 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. Detention center officials in Tolay and Awash Arba made more than one hundred detainees use a single open-pit toilet.
During the SOE, the government operated detention centers in Awash, Ziway, and Dilla, and detained suspects at various police stations in Addis Ababa. The government also held detainees in military facilities, local administration offices, and other temporary sites. 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, one prison in Asella with capacity for 400 held 3,000 inmates. Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults. Prison officials generally separated male and female prisoners, although mixing occurred at some facilities. There were reports that authorities physically abused prisoners in detention centers, military facilities, and police stations. Medical attention following physical abuse was insufficient in some cases.
For example, Ayele Beyene, an inmate of Killinto Prison, died in July while in prison custody. Prison officials reported Ayele’s death to the court on July 24. In a court hearing on July 25, Ayele’s codefendants told the court that they were subject to severe beating in Maekelawi detention center prior to being moved to Killinto Prison. Codefendants also stated they reported Ayele’s condition to the prison authorities repeatedly, but authorities ignored them. Authorities detained Ayele in September 2016 and kept him at the Maekelawi detention center until May 10 when they charged him and seven codefendants with terrorism.
The government budgeted approximately nine birr ($0.40) per prisoner per day for food, water, and health care, although this amount varied across the country. According to the World Bank, the per capita GDP was $1.62 per day. Many prisoners supplemented this amount 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.
HRCO investigators who visited two prisons in Amhara region reported in May that detainees in Debre Tabor Prison faced serious water shortages and overcrowding leading to illness. Detainees in Finote Selam Prison did not get medical services during weekends and emergency cases were not transported to a hospital.
The governmental Institution of the Ombudsman presented its annual report to parliament in June. The report described underpayment of a limited number of prisoners for their labor in Dangla and Debre Markos prisons in the Amhara Region. This prison labor system operates separately from the federal per capita budget for prisoners. Prisoners faced problems accessing food, water, medical treatment, and education. Prison officials made policy changes following recommendations from the Institution of the Ombudsman, which later verified improvements for some criticisms in its report.
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: There were reports that prisoners mistreated by prison guards did not have access to prison administrators or ombudspersons to register their complaints. Some legal aid clinics existed in some prisons. At the regional level, these clinics had good working relations with judicial, prison, and other government officials. Some prison officials allowed detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship. 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 the political parties to which they belonged. 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 visited prisons throughout the country during the year as part of its normal activities. 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. In 2000 the parliament created the EHRC and defined its mandate and powers. Parliament funds and oversees the EHRC. The NGO Justice for All-Prison Fellowship Ethiopia (JPA-PFE) had access to various prison and detention facilities around the country.
Improvements: The Federal Prisons Administration Commission (FPAC) completed construction of a prison complex in Addis Ababa during the year. The prison has a 6,000-inmate capacity. FPAC also completed construction of additional prisons in Shoa Robit, Ziway, and Dire Dawa. JPA-PFE worked with the above prisons to improve conditions so they met international minimum standards.
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. There were reports of thousands of arbitrary arrests and detentions related to the SOE targeting protesters, professors, university students, musicians, businesspersons, health workers, journalists, children, and others. The HRCO in its May report stated authorities detained more than 22,000 citizens in two rounds of arrests under the SOE. It stated the Command Post established to implement the SOE detained 15,370 persons between October 9 and December 20, 2016 in Oromia, Amhara, SNNPR, and Addis Ababa city. The Command Post, however, reported it detained 12,249, of whom 9,800 were released on December 20 after receiving “training.” Authorities filed charges against the remaining 2,449 detainees. They reported 12,500 persons detained from December 22, 2016 to February 3, when they released 11,352; remaining detainees faced charges. The opposition disputed these figures, stating that the government detained more individuals than it acknowledged.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Federal Police report to the Office of the Prime Minister and are subject to parliamentary oversight. That oversight was limited. Each of the nine regions has a state or special police force that reports to regional civilian authorities. Local militias operated across the country in loose and varying coordination with regional and Federal Police and the military. In some cases these militias functioned as extensions of the ruling party. Local militias are members of a community who handle standard security matters within their communities in rural areas. Local government authorities select militia members, who take 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 serious problem, including impunity for killings and other violence against protesters. An internal investigation process existed, although officials acknowledged that it was inadequate. There were no public reports whether internal investigations of the federal police for possible abuses during the SOE occurred. In a report presented in April to the parliament, the EHRC reported 669 persons, including 66 security personnel, killed in the 2016 protests, and 939 individuals, including 100 security personnel, injured in Oromia, Amhara, and SNNPR. The report stated security forces used excessive force in some localities in Oromia and Amhara regions. The commission blamed local government officials, a local opposition political party, and police for the deaths of 34 individuals in Gedeo Zone of SNNPR. The commission did not publicly release its report. The government rarely publicly disclosed the results of investigations into abuses by local security forces, such as arbitrary detention and beatings of civilians. In August a local media report stated that government forces commandeered an NGO or Ministry of Health vehicle to transport security forces in Oromia.
The government supported human rights training for police and army personnel. It accepted assistance from NGOs and the EHRC to improve and professionalize its human rights training and curriculum by including more material on the constitution and international human rights treaties and conventions. Additionally, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) routinely conducts 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 that detainees be brought to court and charged 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 if an investigation continues. 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. In some cases during the SOE defendants spent more than the maximum four months detained 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 local detention centers. Under the SOE, authorities detained persons in military training camps, colleges, schools, and other facilities built for other purposes.
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 ($22 and $444), which most citizens could not afford. The government provided public defenders for detainees unable to afford private legal counsel, but defendants only received these services when their cases went to court and not during the critical pretrial phases. In some cases a single defense counsel represented multiple defendants. 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 thousands of reports of arbitrary arrest by security forces. The May HRCO report stated authorities illegally detained 22,525 persons during the SOE.
For example, authorities temporarily detained Blue Party chairman Yeshiwas Assefa on July 26 in the city of Bahir Dar, Amhara Region. Three officers who detained Yeshiwas for three hours also threatened to kill him if he returned to the city.
The government arbitrarily arrested journalists and those who expressed views that opposed the government (see section 2.a.). For example, in November 2016 security officers detained journalists Elias Gebru and Ananya Sorri as well as opposition politician Daniel Shibeshi in Addis Ababa. On March 13, they released journalist Ananya. On May 28, authorities filed criminal charges against Elias and Daniel on allegations they violated the law under the SOE. On July 17, an appeals court ruled them each eligible for bail. Authorities released Elias on August 2 and Daniel on August 4, each on bail of 50,000 birr ($2,200).
In 2015 police arrested and detained former Blue Party spokesperson Yonatan Tesfaye. On May 4, the federal attorney general charged Yonatan with incitement of terrorism through posts under a pseudonym on Facebook, citing article 4 of the ATP, covering preparation, conspiracy, incitement, and attempt of terrorist acts. At the subsequent court hearing, the attorney general’s office changed the charge to encouragement of terrorism (article six in the ATP) that carries a lesser sentence. On May 25, the Federal High Court convicted Yonatan and sentenced him to six years and six months in prison after finding him guilty of encouraging terrorism through his Facebook posts.
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 thousand individuals remained remanded and awaiting trial.
Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides for detainees to be informed of the nature of their arrest. 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 thousands of arbitrary arrests and detentions related to the SOE. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, professors, university students, musicians, businesspersons, health workers, journalists, children, and others. The criminal law does not provide compensation for persons found to have been unlawfully detained.
Amnesty: In September, in keeping with a long-standing tradition of issuing pardons at the Ethiopian New Year, the federal and regional governments released 13,389 persons. In January Oromia regional government released 10,000 prisoners on pardon. Prisoners who had served a third of their sentences, women prisoners with babies, the elderly, and those with serious health problems benefitted from the pardon. Prisoners sentenced to death and those convicted of corruption, kidnapping, or rape did not qualify for 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 and 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 be provided in a language defendants understand. The federal courts have staff working as interpreters for the major local languages, and are required to hire interpreters for defendants that speak other languages.
Detainees did not, however, always enjoy all these rights, and as a result defense attorneys were sometimes unprepared to provide an 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 torture and other 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 may handle more than 100 cases and may represent multiple defendants in a single case. Numerous free legal aid clinics, based primarily 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 an unknown number of political prisoners and detainees at year’s end. Throughout the year the government detained journalists, activists, and political opposition members, although not explicitly on political grounds. The most common charges against journalists, activists, or opposition politicians were terrorism via ATP, participation in a proscribed terrorist group, incitement, and outrage against the constitution or the constitutional order.
Police arrested Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and 21 others in late 2015. On July 13, the High Court downgraded charges against Bekele from committing terrorist acts to carrying out criminal acts. The court acquitted five defendants and amended the charges against the remaining 16 from planning and preparation of terrorist acts to participation in a terrorist organization, which carries a lesser sentence.
Police arrested other leaders and members of political parties, including OFC leader Merera Gudina, in November 2016 (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation). On March 3, 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. The authorities charged all the defendants, save Merera, in absentia. The charges against Merera included outrage against the constitutional order and violation of the SOE measures prohibiting communication with proscribed terrorist groups. The trial continued at year’s end.
The High Court acquitted opposition politicians Abraha Desta and Daniel Shibeshi of terrorism crimes on July 28. The court started hearing the terrorism trial involving the two opposition politicians in 2015, following the Supreme Court’s reversal of an earlier lower court acquittal.
Authorities detained Shibeshi for a separate case in November 2016 and charged him with violating SOE rules; he was released on bail November 8 for the second case.
On April 6, the 1st Criminal Appellate Bench of the Federal Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s acquittal of Zone 9 bloggers Soliyana Shimeles (in absentia) and Abel Wabella and downgraded the charges against bloggers Natnael Feleke and Atnaf Berhane from terrorism to criminal provocation of the public. The High Court did not set a court date to hear the trial of Natnael and Atnaf. The court downgraded charges against Befekadu Hailu, another member of the blogging collective, from terrorism to criminal. Hailu was released on bail pending the continuation of his trial.
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. The EHRC investigates and makes recommendations to the 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. In an amendment to the initial SOE provisions, 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 carve-out also applies when police have reasonable suspicion that evidence of a crime punishable if convicted by more than three years’ imprisonment is concealed on or in the property and that a delay in obtaining a search warrant would allow the evidence to be removed. Moreover, the antiterrorism 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 officially 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 unwelcome contacts included entry and searches of homes without a warrant. Security forces continued to detain and intimidate family members of persons sought for questioning by the government.
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 get employment (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).