Brussels, 13 June 2016
Dear President, High Representative, Dear Commissioners,
The Prime Minister of Ethiopia will be visiting Brussels for the 2016 European Development Days. We urge you to express serious concerns about the Ethiopian Government’s violent repression of the Oromo protests, and its escalating crackdown on human rights defenders, independent media, peaceful protesters, and members of the political opposition under the 2009 Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP).
Since December 2015, Ethiopian security forces have routinely used excessive, unnecessary and lethal force to disperse and suppress peaceful protests in the Oromia region. The protesters, who have been advocating against the dispossession of land without adequate compensation under the government’s Integrated Development Master Plan, have been subjected to widespread rights violations. According to international and national human rights groups, at least 200 demonstrators, including children and university students, have been killed during the protests. It is also widely reported that hundreds of people have suffered bullet wounds and beatings by the police and military.
The authorities have also arbitrarily arrested thousands of people throughout Oromia for participating in or supporting the protests. Many of those detained are being held without charge and without access to family members or legal representation.
On December 15, 2015, the government publicly described the protesters as “an organised and armed terrorist force” in a cynical and disturbing attempt to conflate their legitimate exercise of fundamental civil liberties with acts of terrorism. We remain deeply concerned that this description of the mostly peaceful protesters has also contributed to greater use of excessive force by security personnel.
Amid a growing chorus of concern, a number of intergovernmental bodies, including the European Parliament as well as the EU High Representative have called on the Ethiopian government to immediately cease its political intimidation and persecution of peaceful protesters and human rights defenders. Recently, on 21 January, four UN Special Rapporteurs and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances issued a joint statement condemning the ongoing crackdown and further called on the Ethiopian Government to “immediately release protesters who seem to have been arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, to reveal the whereabouts of those reportedly disappeared and to carry out an independent, transparent investigation into the security forces’ response to the protest.” On 21 January 2016, the European Parliament passed an urgent resolution on the situation in Ethiopia, condemning the use of violence by the security forces against peaceful Oromo protesters and drawing attention to the increased number of human rights violations in Ethiopia. The resolution also called for a credible investigation into the repression that has taken place in the context of the protests.
The government also continues to misuse the abusive 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to silence independent voices and dissent. Among those arrested and still in detention are Bekele Gerba (Deputy Chair, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC)), Dejene Tufa (Deputy General Secretary, OFC), Getachew Shiferaw (Editor-in-Chief of the online newspaper Negere Ethiopia), Yonathan Teressa (a human rights defender), and Desta Dinka (Chair of the youth wing of OFC)while Fikadu Mirkana (reporter with the state-owned Oromia Radio and TV) has since been released.
On 22 January 2016, opposition leader Bekele Gerba and 21 other individuals were arraigned at the Federal First Instance Court, Arada Branch, which granted the prosecutor’s request for 28 days remand to police custody under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Most recently, on 10 May 2016, blogger Zelalem Workagenehu was sentenced to five years and four months in prison under the ATP. Zelalem, who works for the independent diaspora blog, De Birhan, was convicted under charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and supporting terrorism under the ATP. The activities on which these charges were based relate to a digital security training course and as well as to reporting on the peaceful protest movements in the country. Serious concerns persist that Zelalem has been subject to torture while in detention.
Prominent international human rights experts and bodies, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have repeatedly condemned the deliberate misuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation’s overly broad and vague provisions to target journalists and activists. The law permits up to four months of pre-trial detention and prescribes draconian prison sentences for a wide range of activities protected under international human rights law. Scores of human rights defenders as well as journalists, bloggers, peaceful demonstrators and opposition party members have been subjected to harassment and politically motivated prosecution under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, making Ethiopia one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world.
There are no effective avenues to pursue accountability for abuses given the lack of independence of the judiciary, and legislative constraints. During the May 2015 General Elections, the ruling EPRDF party won all 547 seats in the Ethiopian Parliament. In addition, domestic civil society organisations are severely hindered by one of the most restrictive NGO laws in the world. Specifically, under the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, the vast majority of Ethiopian organisations have been forced to stop working on human rights and governance issues, a matter of great concern that has been repeatedly raised including at Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
Finally, we are also extremely concerned at the new Computer Crimes Proclamation that the Ethiopian Parliament approved on 7 June. Worryingly, the law criminalises a number of legitimate forms of online speech and prescribes up to 10 years in prison for non-compliance.
In light of these restrictions, it is incumbent on the international community, including the European Union (EU), to take a principled position urging the Ethiopian Government to immediately end its systematic campaign to suppress peaceful dissent and uphold its international and regional human rights obligations to promote and protect the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression. In doing so. the European Union must take all appropriate measures to operationalise its Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and its Guidelines on Freedom of Expression.
With this in mind, we urge the EU to use the occasion of the European Development Days conference as an opportunity to raise the cases of detained human rights defenders, and encourage the Ethiopian government to:
- immediately cease the use of excessive and unnecessary lethal force by security forces against protesters in Oromia Region of Ethiopia and elsewhere in Ethiopia;
- immediately and unconditionally release journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition leaders and members as well as protesters arbitrarily detained during and in the aftermath of the protests;
- establish a thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation into all of the deaths resulting from alleged excessive use of force by the security forces, and other violations of human rights in the context of the protests;
- ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are prosecuted in proceedings which comply with international law and standards on fair trial and without resort to the death penalty; and
- fully comply with its international legal obligations and commitments including under the, ICCPR, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and its own Constitution, including bringing the ATP in line with its international, regional and constitutional human rights obligations.
Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders
Dr. Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders