Rights groups cry foul as Ethiopia prepares for poll

As Ethiopia prepares for weekend elections, its human rights record has come under increasing criticism from watchdogs who believe the poll has already been marred by myriad abuses.

Accused of harassment, arbitrary detention and even the murder of opposition supporters, a campaign to quell dissent in the country’s most populous Oromia state and repression of ethnic minorities in Gambella region, the government has reacted angrily, accusing its critics of politically motivated lies.

Yet the volume and content of the complaints, the latest wave of which began in February before the electoral campaign even opened, suggest that authorities in Addis Ababa may have to answer for more than unsupported claims of abuse.

While acknowledging that the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a vast improvement over the Soviet-backed dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Miriam that it ousted in 1991, rights groups, democracy advocates and foreign donors have expressed deep concerns about conditions in the impoverished nation.

On Tuesday, just five days before the polls, a researcher with the respected New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the situation had “greatly improved” since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s EPRDF came to power in 1991, but was quick to add that the government does not deserve much praise.

“I don’t think that the government deserves a lot of credit for the improvement after the military dictatorship,” Chris Albin-Lackey told reporters in Nairobi.

His comment came as HRW issued its second scathing assessment of government conduct in three months, maintaining in a 44-page report that widespread abuses are being committed in southern Oromia state.

“The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles,” the group said.

“But in the run-up to the elections, the authorities have intensified the repression they have used to keep themselves in power for 13 years.”

HRW accused Addis Ababa of taking advantage of a fight against the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front to justify the torture, imprisonment and sustained harassment of its critics and even ordinary citizens.

Ethiopian Information Minister and EPRDF campaign spokesperson Berekat Simon responded by saying the report was “a bunch of lies that is politically motivated” and that Human Rights Watch is “not a credible organisation”.

Officials used similar language in responding to a March report from HRW that accused the Ethiopian army of abuses that could constitute crimes against humanity against the indigenous Anuak population in the southwestern Gambella region.

Yet the complaints come from other sources as well.

“The state continues to link terrorism and political activism to journalism,” said Leonard Vincent, an official with the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).

RSF and its US-based companion, the Committee to Protect Journalists, have for more than a year been protesting the arrest and continued detention without charge of two reporters from the country’s majority Oromo tribe.

Addis Ababa-based diplomats share concerns that the country’s creaking judicial system may be used by the government for political ends.

“The judicial system is not really functional,” said one.

“People are jailed and don’t have a right to an attorney and can wait for up to eight years for trial.”

In February, the United States State Department noted improvements in conditions in Ethiopia but still took the government to task, saying its “human rights record remained poor” and that “serious problems remained”.

“Security forces committed a number of unlawful killings ... the government continued to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily ... thousands of suspects remained in detention without charge ...
the government infringed on citizens’ privacy rights” and “The government restricted freedom of the press,” were just some of the charges outlined in the annual US human rights report on Ethiopia. - Sapa-AFP

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