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Ethiopia: On the Edge

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 18, 2005 (050618)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Despite the announced release of 336 detainees in Ethiopia on June 17, and renewed agreement by opposition and government parties to await the results of investigations of election fraud, tension continues high both in the capital and in many other areas of the country. Critics charge that the international community is downplaying government repression because of the strategic importance of the country.

At a minimum, dozens of protesters have been shot, and thousands detained this month, after a generally peaceful and open election on May 15. The preliminary announcements of government victories are unlikely to be reversed. But the hope of avoiding more violence depends on whether the government proves more willing to accept greater power-sharing and dialogue with opposition parties that dominated the vote in Addis Ababa and demonstrated unexpected strength in many other areas as well.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a June 17 update from the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks, excerpts from a June 10 statement by the Network of Ethiopian Scholars, Scandinavian Chapter, and a June 15 press release from Human Rights Watch.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, and additional references, including links to news sources, visit

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Ethiopia: Police Free 336 People Arrested During Political Unrest

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

June 17, 2005

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Addis Ababa

Ethiopian police have freed 336 prisoners seized in a government crackdown during a week of political unrest in which at least 36 people were killed, officials said on Friday.

More people will be freed in the coming days, said government spokesman Zemedkun Teckle after the first reported release since the fighting broke out.

Human rights organisations said thousands of people had been arrested across the country. The detentions were related to the 6-8 June demonstrations, when protestors took to the streets in Addis Ababa to denounce alleged ballot rigging during parliamentary elections on 15 May.

Police were unable to specify the exact number of people arrested.

"More people will be released," said Zemedkun. "Anyone found not to have been involved in political unrest would be freed."

The move followed Britain's decision to freeze 20 million pounds sterling (US $36 million) in aid to Ethiopia because of the crackdown on the demonstrations.

The main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), said that up to 120 of its staff throughout the country had been jailed.

Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of the CUD, said its supporters must be released if continued peace talks with the ruling party are to bear fruit.

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) accused the opposition of instigating the violence, a charge opposition leaders denied. The CUD, for their part, said the government was guilty of electoral malpractice. The government denied the allegation.

According to the state-controlled media, detainees who were released were given a police warning instead of being charged in court.

"To stabilise the peace that is prevailing now in the city, the federal police have released 336 detainees after investigating their involvement in the violence of last week," the country's federal police said in a statement broadcast by state media.

In a related development, the National Election Board has agreed to probe accusations of poll malpractice in some 200 constituencies.

After reviewing the complaints lodged by political parties, the head of the board, Kemal Bedri, said that almost 40 percent of the contested seats merited investigation. The electoral board would order new elections or recounts if necessary.

"We have an estimated figure of around 200 that we will investigate," Kemal said on Thursday.

The board had been reviewing complaints in 299 of the 524 constituencies contested during the 15 May polls. Elections for the remaining 23 seats of the 547-seat parliament will be held in August.

The ruling party has won 302 seats so far, and its allies garnered 21, according to provisional results. The opposition took 194 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Political parties have lodged 61 types of complaints, which include allegations of gunmen intimidating voters, people being forced to vote for certain parties, ballot boxes being stuffed or disappearing and the number of ballots exceeding that of registered voters.

"What action we take will depend on the outcome of the investigations," said election board spokesman Getahun Amogne. "We can order re-elections or recounts," he added.

The board has set up 20 investigation teams comprised of both the ruling party and the opposition. Observers from the African Union, European Union and the Carter Center would be invited to witness the process.

Ethiopian scholars on developments in Ethiopia

Press Statement by Network of Ethiopian Scholars (NES) - Scandinavia Chapter

June 10, 2005 [Excerpts. Full text available on]

As independent academics working in higher education in Scandinavia, deeply concerned about the fate of our people, democratic transition and nation, we would like to express our deep sorrow, shock and anger by the quick turn of events in Ethiopia from expectations and hope that a new historical chapter would be open in the ancient nation to the setback and step back to the ugly and deeply offensive practice of the politics of cold-blooded murder against innocent and unarmed students. We protested when fellow academics were jailed and students were murdered in 2001. Sadly once more we are forced to repeat and register to the world yet another protest. We saw pictures of soldiers directing and shooting at students within the columns of the closed gates of the University. How can soldiers be unleashed to invade the university at will and even choose to peep gun butts through the holes in the columns of the gates to shoot to kill? Meles & Co. had been students at the same university. Once upon a time they too protested against such barbarity, now they sanction it, and even perhaps as the opposition have reported, instigated it to manufacture an artificial chaos in order to retain the authoritarian alternative to the democratisation of power.

How we wish to see the day when the blood of the innocent young people will stop from being spilt. We are unfortunately far away from the scene where the bad news, and the pictures of horrifically injured youngsters, mothers and fathers so humble and unassuming, hurting with their noble gaze bewildered by the fate that befell them, fiercely continues to pierce our heart, sapping our spirit, depleting our energy and suffocating our conscience. Their agony beckons us to act. The world must know in this 21st century that values of human rights, democracy and governance are shared and they are every ones concern now. ...We call the world to join us to protest against injustice. Let not Ethiopia be forced once again to suffer the agony of arrogant terror deployed so easily and shamelessly by the ruling elite that seems to have lost backing from the people during the current election ironically controlled by itself.

What is it about Ethiopia that makes it prone to take the wrong historical turn every time it appears to make the correct turn? Given Ethiopia is a country that has suffered for so long from red and white terror, war and famine, unending humiliation and prolonged dictatorship, what would it take to make it change from using violence to make political transition to using democracy? How can the people be so close to make the historic transition through democracy and be denied from it and become cheated from celebration? How cruel can it be of the regime to dangle the democratic carrot and invade their peace with the armed stick? For how long must our old nation endure such crude behaviour from those who prefer to rely on army, police and armed violence to retain and ascend to power rather the free expression of free people? Why attempt to dam the historical opportunity to open a new and peaceful transition from one set of parties to another.

Naively perhaps we all thought that members of the ruling party might have recognised that after reaching nearly the same number of years that the previous regime stayed in the palaces of Ethiopia, they too might wish to think of history and not their belly and their fat bank accounts. We thought they want to leave a legacy and not a tragedy. ...

We are back to square one. The current ruling elites are no visionaries. They cannot see how significant it is to seize the historical opportunity of effectuating a political transition based on democratic choice rather than through the usual military methods. Of all the dangers facing our nation, it is this threat of disrupting the historic opportunity for a peaceful transition that is most unwelcome. This danger poses the gravest of all tasks for all of us everywhere to resist any premature abortion to peaceful and democratic transition. ...

Who Is Responsible for Killing Student Demonstrators?

Let us briefly show the chronicle of events from the pre-election period to the present. This is how the turn of events took. Meles and Bereket did not expect that the opposition would do so well and even threaten their rule with the danger of a potential opposition majority in parliament. They were deluding themselves that the people are behind them. The chair of NES, spent five weeks in the rural areas of northern Ethiopia and did not meet even one person who had anything good to say about the regime. The vice-chair also spent 18 months in different parts of Ethiopia and was surprised to find that hardly anyone he came across showed any trust, respect or support to the ruling party and its current leaders. People were tired of their lies and their relentless bullying. Farmers were demoralised. Business people were complaining of higher and unfair taxation. People show their protest through various outlets. It was clear that given a free and fair election, the opposition would win with a landslide. The regime did not get this message. Meles & Co. panicked. They seem to have resorted to classic Orwellian deceit. They instigate and accuse the opposition of their own vice. They lie and accuse the opposition for lying. They went for cheap politics and quickly lost the entire plot. When they ordered shoot to kill, they became hopelessly compromised losing any credibility of claims to any higher purpose they like to embellish themselves. The king has finally has no clothes.

Even before the election date, judging the public mood they declared a state of emergency. They banned peaceful protest and thus took anti-democratic measures. The message of danger grew even more to their rule, when city after city began to fall to the opposition. But as soon as they saw the election was going wrong for their side, they accelerated the tense environment by spreading rumours of violence, ethnic cleansing and the like. ...

What was remarkable was that the opposition continued to remain largely unprovoked and strategic in the measures it took. It behaved impeccably and with wisdom, responsibility and utmost disciple and kept the faith that the country's historic achievement, i.e., - the choice of a peaceful and not violent political transition has finally arrived! Meanwhile in many rural areas the ballot counting control mechanism has been very weak, the Election Board has been accused of partisanship, so ballot rigging became rife, and inspectors started giving contradictory signals including former US president Jimmy Carter.

When the state of emergency lapsed students took to peaceful protest. Meles declared another restrictive military control of the situation, rather than allowing peaceful dialogue, freedom of association, and democratic expression of peaceful protest. The state of emergency created tension; the military style of governing created even more problems by blocking the avenues of debate, public participation and democratic celebration. The persistent and further rumour of ethnic tension created unease. ...

We demand that:

  • Meles and Co. immediately release the opposition leaders
  • They immediately release the 500 students
  • No Ethiopian deserves to die at this moment because they exercised the right of peaceful democratic rights
  • The contested seats be recounted expeditiously
  • If the opposition is found winning, the regime hands power peacefully to the opposition and the vice versa
  • Call the army to return to the barracks.
  • Those that ordered and killed the reported 26 students be brought to justice.

Once the expression of democratic will of the people is respected, we call on opposition and Government to think of creating an atmosphere for a national consensus on the major issues confronting our nation at this point in its long history.

The light of democracy has encouraged us, and we like not to be discouraged by dimming it with the current killing. We want Ethiopia to experience what it never had in its long history- a peaceful and lawful transition from one set of parties to another. Democratic institutions alone can fix the destiny of the Ethiopian nation. They alone can put behind us our numberless humiliations. ... We call upon all the people of the world, friends of Ethiopia, friends of democracy, friends of those who suffered long and hard humiliations and Governments, The UN and others to put maximum pressure on Meles & Co. in order for Ethiopians to embark a new democratic future and destiny.

Professor Mammo Muchie, Chair of NES-Scandinavian Chapter Berhanu G. Balcha, vice- Chair of NES-Scandinavian Chapter

Contact address: Fibigerstraede 2 9220- Aalborg East Denmark Tel. + 45 96 359 813 Or +45 96 358 331 Fax + 45 98 153 298 Cell:+45 3112 5507 Email: or

Ethiopia: Crackdown Spreads Beyond Capital

Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Press Release
June 15, 2005

As Arbitrary Arrests Continue, Detainees Face Torture and Ill-Treatment

In the wake of last week's election-related protests, the Ethiopian government's crackdown on potential sources of unrest has spread throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today. While international attention has focused on events in Addis Ababa, opposition members and students in other cities are increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrest and torture.

The current wave of arrests followed a chaotic week in Addis Ababa that saw security forces put down a series of election-related protests with excessive force. The disorder in the capital reached a bloody peak on Wednesday, when security forces responded to incidents of rock-throwing and looting by opening fire indiscriminately on large crowds of people, killing at least 36 and wounding more than 100.

The Ethiopian government has refused to accept any responsibility for the shootings, insisting that the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was wholly to blame because of its alleged involvement in organizing the protests in defiance of a citywide ban on demonstrations in the capital.

"Opposition rhetoric may well have contributed to last week's unrest, but the government must take responsibility for the conduct of its own security forces," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The security forces have killed dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country."

Since protests over alleged electoral fraud in the country's May 15 elections erupted last week in Addis Ababa and several other towns, police and other security officials have detained several thousand people throughout Ethiopia. Many of those swept up in the initial round of mass arrests in the capital and elsewhere have since been released, but smaller-scale arrests targeting CUD supporters and student activists have continued unabated.

The Ethiopian Constitution mandates that detainees be taken to court within 48 hours of their arrest and informed of the reasons for their detention. However, almost none of the people swept up in the past week's arrests have been brought before a judge.

The situation of individuals detained in towns relatively far from the capital is of particular concern, as little is known about their total numbers, the reasons for their arrest or the conditions under which they are being held. Local officials in many towns have cast a very wide net, arbitrarily detaining individuals they suspect of being sympathetic to last week's demonstrations. Most of these detainees are locally prominent CUD members and students.

"Given the Ethiopian security forces' long record of detainee abuse, there is every reason to worry that those arrested are being mistreated," Gagnon said. "This is especially true for those who have been detained in towns far from the media spotlight that has focused on Addis Ababa in recent days."

Human Rights Watch has obtained reports of mass arrests in at least nine cities outside of Addis Ababa since last Monday. In Gondar, Bure, Bahir Dar, Debre Markos, Dessie and Awassa, several hundred students were arrested after police forcibly put down peaceful election-related student demonstrations. Police subsequently released many of those detained, but at least several dozen students remain in detention without charge.

In addition, security forces in Gondar, Dessie, Wondo Genet, Kombolcha and Jinka have arrested several dozen locally prominent CUD members over the course of the past several days. Unconfirmed reports of arrests following a similar pattern have emerged from several other towns. Government officials have offered no public acknowledgement of or explanation for any of these arrests.

Security forces have also continued to arrest large numbers of CUD supporters in the capital over the course of the past several days. They have also detained three investigators for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, all of whom had been working to gather information about the continuing arrests.

Large numbers of prisoners are being held at the Ziway detention facility, about 150 kilometers south of the capital. The total number of detainees being held there is unknown, and the government has not allowed any outside groups to access the facility. Some of the students recently released from the Sendafa detention facility, 40 kilometers north of Addis Ababa, after being detained last Monday reported that they were forced to perform a series of exhausting drills and exercises as a form of punishment.

"The Ethiopian security forces' long history of mistreating detainees arrested for political reasons is hardly a secret," said Gagnon. "The international community should call on the Ethiopian government to immediately open up these detention facilities to international scrutiny."

On several occasions over the course of the past four years, police beat and tortured large numbers of university and secondary school students they arrested following student protests in Addis Ababa and in towns throughout Oromia region. Many of those student detainees were kept in prison for weeks or months without ever being brought before a judge. Security forces have subjected other perceived dissidents to similarly abusive treatment and prolonged periods of arbitrary detention.

Last week's bloodshed in Addis Ababa was also not the first time that Ethiopian security forces have killed large numbers of protesters. In April 2001, police killed more than 30 people and wounded an estimated 400 more in putting down a student demonstration at Addis Ababa University. And in May 2002, police opened machine-gun fire on protesters in Awassa, killing an estimated 38 people.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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