Observers Cite Use of Excessive Force, Arbitrary Arrests and Blocking of Web in Ethiopia

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Ethiopia's foreign minister dismissed criticism of his country's human rights record as concerns are rising about security there, saying the fight against terrorism is just as momentous in Ethiopia as it is in other nations.
"Why should countries like Ethiopia be taken to task? There is no country that has established perfect institutions of democracy or human rights, even countries like the
United States," Seyoum Mesfin said recently in response to accusations that his government has carried out arbitrary detentions, used excessive force in dealing with opposition demonstrators and rolled back personal freedoms.
"We recognize we have challenges in building institutions. We are in a process of transformation," he said. "We do recognize our limitations, and we cannot be expected in just one-and-a-half decades to build robust institutions of democracy and human rights."
Late last month, Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) introduced the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act, which offers support for the development of democracy in Ethiopia but expresses concern about deteriorating respect for human rights. The bill calls for the release of political prisoners and urges travel restrictions for officials who have "been involved in giving orders to use lethal force against peaceful demonstrators," as well as for those accused of gross human rights violations.
The measure stems in part from the aftermath of parliamentary elections in Ethiopia in May 2005. The opposition criticized the process and results as fraudulent, and its supporters protested in
Addis Ababa, the capital, and later in other parts of the country. The government has been accused of responding to the demonstrations with excessive force, which left dozens of people dead. Thousands of opposition members, including 10 members of parliament, and their supporters were arrested.
The
State Department has also noted such actions by the Ethiopian government.
Mesfin Mekonen, a spokesman for the Ethiopian American Council, a Washington-based group that supports the opposition, said the country's ruling party had "corrupted the democratic process" by jailing innocent men, women and children and intimidating the news media.
Testifying on
Capitol Hill on Friday, Lynn Fredriksson, Amnesty International's Africa advocacy director, said the chairman and vice chairman of a Parliament-ordered inquiry into the violence fled Ethiopia last year after concluding that security forces had used excessive force. Their departure was prompted by threats to change the panel's findings, she said.
Fredriksson told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights and international organizations and its oversight subcommittee on Africa and global health that the prisoners arrested in late 2005 included members of parliament, law professors and former judges.
Among those arrested and charged with treason and genocide was the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, 76. Wolde-Mariam had said that torture and other crimes were being committed in the country despite the fact that Ethiopia was a signatory to several human rights treaties and national commitments.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported recently that in December police arrested Tsegaye Ayele Yigzaw, 34, a member of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party. The group concluded that the radiologist and father of three had died in custody after being tortured, and it demanded an official investigation and the release of autopsy results to the family.
On May 1, an Internet watchdog group, the OpenNet Initiative, accused the Ethiopian government of blocking scores of anti-government Web sites and millions of blogs. The Ethiopian government responded that technical problems had blocked access to the sites. OpenNet is a partnership among
Harvard Law School and the universities of Toronto, Cambridge and Oxford.
Mesfin, the foreign minister, played down the criticisms, calling them rhetoric fueled by the Ethiopian American community, and pointed to the country's significant economic and social progress. "Ethiopia is one of the hopes of Africa. In the last four years, our GDP growth has averaged 10 percent," he said. "Ninety percent of our children attend primary school."
Mesfin emphasized Ethiopia's important role in the war against terrorism and said the United States and various African governments have been collaborating on counterterrorism efforts for years.
Ethiopia has described its recent military move into
Somalia, for example, as an effort to flush out a radical Islamic movement and its fighters. Mesfin said that the mission, which began late last year and is in its final phase, was in self-defense against Islamic extremists in Somalia who had declared war on Ethiopia. "Ethiopia intervened not because it was a choice but because it was imposed on us," he said.
On April 24, a suicide attacker struck a Chinese oil installation 390 miles east of Addis Ababa, killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese. The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi blamed the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic Somali group fighting for secession.
John Prendergast, an Africa specialist and co-author of an article in Foreign Affairs last month about potential eruptions in the
Horn of Africa, said: "Ethiopia is facing the prospect of increased attacks inside its own borders because of its ill-conceived intervention in Somalia. It is their nightmare scenario."
Alex de Waal, an Ethiopia specialist with the
New York-based Social Science Research Council, said the Ethiopian government "will do what is necessary to stay in power. . . . They want to be 100 percent sure there is no opposition." He said that although the crackdown on critics was not justified, the opposition was disunited and had acted irresponsibly.
"Sure, there was a certain amount of fiddling with the elections, but the outcome was largely okay," de Waal said. "The opposition called for an uprising to overthrow the government. . . . The government feels it has won this round by saying, 'Americans need us for counterterrorism.' "

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