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Human Rights

Despite much rhetoric on the part of the Mengistu government to the contrary and an entire chapter of the 1987 constitution devoted to "basic freedoms and rights," Ethiopia under Mengistu had one of the worst human rights records in the world. Haile Selassie's modernization of the penal code and the introduction of legal guarantees in the 1955 constitution indicated at least a recognition of the human rights problem. But Amnesty International described subsequent improvements in human rights conditions as "severely qualified." Human rights violations after 1974 increased dramatically, despite the regime's assurances to the UN that political prisoners received "fair trials" and obtained adequate food and clothing from their families. According to reports issued by Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the testimony of refugees, the human rights situation deteriorated still further from 1976 to 1978. Although human rights organizations often lacked verification of the exact extent of violations, many observers made repeated charges that Ethiopian troops had massacred civilians and committed atrocities in Eritrea and that the Ethiopian government had perpetrated human rights violations throughout the country, including arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without due process, torture, summary executions, and mass killings during the Red Terror.

In a report based on the observations of a 1976 fact- finding visit to Ethiopia, Amnesty International stated that, since 1974, "there has developed a consistent pattern of widespread gross human rights violations," and it singled out the association tribunals for the most egregious disregard of basic human values. Addis Ababa responded to this charge by labeling the evidence presented by Amnesty International as "imperialist propaganda [against] authentic socialist revolution" and claimed that actions taken against political dissidents during the Red Terror were "justified" for the elimination of "counterrevolutionaries." Official sources subsequently added that the human rights enjoyed by the "broad masses" were greater than they had been before the revolution and dismissed the "individual human rights" concept that was the premise of Western criticism of the regime as being irrelevant to a revolutionary government building a Marxist society.

The enormity of government-sponsored operations against suspected political opponents during the Red Terror has defied accurate analysis and has made attempts at quantification of casualties irrelevant. Amnesty International, for example, concluded that "this campaign resulted in several thousand to perhaps tens of thousands of men, women, and children, killed, tortured, and imprisoned." Other sources estimated that, during 1977-78, about 30,000 people had perished as a result of the Red Terror and harsh conditions in prisons, kebele jails, and concentration camps. Ethiopian sources opposed to the Marxist regime claimed that the security forces had killed 2,000 teachers and students in a pre-May Day 1978 massacre in Addis Ababa. The authorities also executed hundreds of unarmed Eritrean civilians in Asmera while the city was under siege by secessionists in December 1977. In a single sweep in Addis Ababa the same month, troops killed about 1,000 students for distributing antigovernment leaflets.

During the Red Terror in Addis Ababa, security forces frequently mutilated the bodies of political dissidents, dumping them along roads or stacking them on street corners. They also forced some victims to dig their own graves before being executed. The government required families to pay a "bullet fee" of about 125 birr to retrieve bodies of relatives, when they could be found and identified. Sweden's Save the Children Fund lodged a protest in early 1978 alleging the execution of about 1,000 children, many below the age of thirteen, whom the government had labeled "liaison agents of the counterrevolutionaries." Based on its assessment of the human rights situation in Ethiopia in 1979, the United States Department of State reported to congressional committees in February 1980 that "serious violations of individual rights and civil and political liberties take place in Ethiopia amidst a restructed economic and social system that is aimed at improving the basic living conditions of the great majority of the country's poor."

During the 1984-85 famine in northern Ethiopia, the Mengistu regime devised a scheme to resettle 1.5 million people onto so-called virgin lands in southern Ethiopia. The government forcibly moved people who resisted the plan, and many of those who were resettled fled to Sudan and took refuge in camps or tried to walk back to their northern homelands (see Resettlement and Villagization, ch. 2; The Politics of Resettlement, ch. 4). According to a report issued by an international medical group, 100,000 people died as a result of Mengistu's resettlement policy; Cultural Survival, another humanitarian organization, estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 died. To make matters worse, Mengistu refused to allow food to be distributed in areas where inhabitants were sympathetic to the EPLF, TPLF, or other antigovernment groups, a strategy that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.

When a new famine emerged in late 1989, threatening the lives of 2 million to 5 million people, Mengistu again used food as a weapon by banning the movement of relief supplies along the main road north from Addis Ababa to Tigray and also along the road from Mitsiwa into Eritrea and south into Tigray. As a result, food relief vehicles had to travel overland from Port Sudan, the major Red Sea port of Sudan, through guerrilla territory into northern Ethiopia. After an international outcry against his policy, Mengistu reversed his decision, but international relief agencies were unable to move significant amounts of food aid into Eritrea and Tigray via Ethiopian ports. By 1990 there also were many reports that the Ethiopian air force had bombed relief convoys and that the Ethiopian armed forces had used napalm and cluster bombs against separatists in Eritrea and Tigray. The EPLF, too, attacked food convoys, claiming that the regime was using them to ship weapons to its troops.

Due process of law and legal guarantees prohibiting abuse of power basically did not exist in revolutionary Ethiopia. After revision of the penal code and the criminal procedures code in 1976, judicial warrants were no longer required for house searches or for the arbitrary off-the-street arrests that became the norm in the late 1970s. Specific charges were not necessarily brought against detainees after politically motivated arrests, and those held had no right to counsel. The bulk of noncriminal arrests involved suspects seized at the discretion of authorities on charges of nonparticipation in mandatory political activities, curfew violations, and participation in unauthorized meetings. In most cases, those arrested or summoned to association tribunals for questioning would be released after a scare or a roughing up, but many would disappear without a trace. Whole families--including young children-- would be taken into custody and held for indefinite periods in lieu of a missing relative who was a suspect.

In Addis Ababa, special security force squads, assisted by kebele defense squads, would arrest political suspects, who would then be taken to police headquarters for interrogation by officials. After questioning, often accompanied by torture, the authorities would assign suspects to a prison to await trial or hold them in detention camps without charges. Under these circumstances, many detainees welcomed sentencing, even if it was for a long period. The government confiscated a suspect's possessions after arrest and required families to search prisons to locate their relatives.

According to a variety of estimates, there were 6,000 to 10,000 political prisoners, including surviving officials of the former imperial regime, in Ethiopian prisons in 1976. During the Red Terror, as many as 100,000 persons may have passed through Ethiopian jails. Appeals by Amnesty International in support of approximately 3,000 known political detainees in 1978 had no effect, and most of these individuals were believed to have been killed while in custody. Other sources put the number of political prisoners at 8,000, of whom half eventually were released.

Categories of political prisoners still held in 1991 included former government officials; prominent civil servants and businessmen; armed forces officers, including those implicated in the May 1989 coup attempt against Mengistu; students and teachers; members of ethnic, regional, and separatist groups; leaders of professional and women's groups and trade unionists who resisted government takeover of their organizations; churchmen; suspected members of the EPLF, TPLF, or other guerrilla movements; and others arrested on various pretexts on orders from the government or from kebeles or peasant associations. Political prisoners generally included a large number of young persons and educated professionals, a high proportion of them Eritrean or Oromo.

Censorship, openly imposed under the old regime, became even harsher after 1974. The press, radio, and television were controlled by the state and were considered instruments of government policy (see Mass Media, ch. 4). Independent media outlets, such as the Lutheran broadcasting station in Addis Ababa, were seized by the Mengistu government. Censorship guidelines for the press were vague, but many Ethiopian journalists were imprisoned for less than enthusiastic cooperation with the Mengistu regime. All reports to the foreign press had to be transmitted through the Ethiopian News Agency. After 1975 government authorities expelled many Western journalists for "mischief and distortion" in their reporting. The Mengistu government also banned songs, books, and periodicals that were judged to be contrary to the spirit of the revolution.

* * *

Because of the limited access to Ethiopia afforded Western observers and the secrecy surrounding almost all of the Mengistu government's activities, accurate and consistent information and statistics pertaining to the Mengistu regime are difficult to obtain. In 1991 there still were no definitive studies describing in sufficient detail the entire scope of national security problems in contemporary Ethiopia. Those interested in Ethiopian national security affairs therefore must rely on a variety of periodicals, including Africa Research Bulletin, Keesing's Contemporary Archives, Third World Reports, and Africa Confidential. The International Institute for Strategic Studies' annuals, The Military Balance and Strategic Survey, also are essential for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of Ethiopia's security forces. The same is true of the annuals Africa Contemporary Record and World Armaments and Disarmament, the latter published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Harold G. Marcus's Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974 provides an excellent analysis of the historical evolution of the Ethiopian armed forces. Other useful historical sources include Donald N. Levine's "The Military in Ethiopian Politics"; Richard A. Caulk's "The Army and Society in Ethiopia"; and Yohannis Abate's "Civil- Military Relations in Ethiopia." Marina and David Ottaway's Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution also is essential for an understanding of the military's role in contemporary Ethiopia.

Material on human rights practices in Ethiopia can be found in the annual Amnesty International Report and in other Amnesty International publications, such as Ethiopia: Human Rights Violations, Ethiopia: Political Imprisonment and Torture, and Ethiopia: Political Imprisonment. Although dated (1979), Bekele Mesfin's "Prison Conditions in Ethiopia" remains a valuable first-hand account of the life of a political prisoner in Mengistu's Ethiopia. For an analysis of the human costs of Mengistu's resettlement policy, Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb's Politics and the Ethiopian Famine, 1984-1985 is fundamental. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of 1991


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