Prisoners of Conscience on Trial in Ethiopia May Not Receive a Fair Trial, Amnesty International Fears

Report Decries Possibility of Death Sentences and Absurd 'Genocide' Charges

(New York) -- Human rights defenders, independent journalists and elected opposition members of Parliament whose trial continues in Ethiopia on Tuesday face a judicial system responsible for several unfair political trials in recent years, says a new Amnesty International report. The organization considers these defendants -- arrested in connection with demonstrations in November 2005 -- prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence and calls on the Ethiopian government to release them immediately and unconditionally.
"These detainees are being held solely for their political beliefs. If the Ethiopian government wants them on trial, it should at least be a fair trial," said Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). "This will be a test of the independence of the Ethiopian judiciary."
The 28-page report, Ethiopia: Prisoners of conscience on trial for treason, provides an analysis of the trial, charges and defendants, who include several lawyers, academics and a former United Nations Special Envoy. The report includes a list of concerns about the fairness of the trial and recommendations to the Ethiopian government and the international community.
The defendants were arrested in connection with opposition demonstrations following alleged electoral fraud around the May 15, 2005, elections. Ethiopian security forces shot dead dozens of demonstrators in June and November 2005 and detained thousands of opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party supporters, many of whom are still detained without charge.
Amnesty International is concerned about the treatment of the defendants in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where they have been restricted access to their families, legal representatives, medical care and reading material, as well as denied access to writing materials.
The trial reopens on Tuesday, May 2nd, with the presentation of the prosecution case before the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa.
Amnesty International's concerns about the trial include:
Presumption of innocence may have been prejudiced by statements made by the Prime Minister, Minister of Information and state media commentators accusing the CUD of fomenting violence and ethnic hatred, committing treason and planning a Rwanda-style genocide.
Defense counsel in Ethiopia cannot communicate with their clients in full confidentiality -- police or security officers are regularly present during meetings. Exchanging documents with clients is prohibited. Consultations must be held in Amharic, even if this is not the client's mother tongue.
Amnesty International urges the international community to increase its efforts to work impartially and effectively for human rights in Ethiopia, in accordance with human rights policy commitments by governments, aid donors and inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, African Union and European Union.
"The international community should continue to press Ethiopia to observe international standards on freedom of expression," said Lynn Fredriksson, AIUSA Advocacy Director for Africa. "The Ethiopian government shouldn't be allowed to act above the law."
In total, 76 individuals are due to appear in court Tuesday for the opening of the prosecution case, following earlier preliminary proceedings. They include Hailu Shawel and other CUD leaders; Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, aged 76 and in poor health after a hunger strike; Yakob Hailemariam, a former U.N. Special Envoy and Rwanda genocide prosecutor; Dr. Berhanu Negga, the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa; Birtukan Mideksa, a vice president of the CUD and a former judge; civil society activists from ActionAid, Organization for Social Justice in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Teachers Association; and 14 journalists from independent newspapers.
They are charged with treason, "outrages against the Constitution," "armed conspiracy" or "genocide" -- a charge Amnesty International describes in this context as "absurd." Nearly all the charges can carry death sentences. The trial is likely to last several months.
On April 24, 2006, Ethiopia's main donor group, the Ambassadors' Donors Group, the African Development Bank, the European Commission, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank, called for the release of the imprisoned CUD leaders and representatives of the media and civil society.

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at12:36 PM

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