10 May 2005

Ethiopian Government Taken to Task Over Massive Rights Abuses

Nairobi — As parliamentary elections approach, the Ethiopian authorities have established new institutions that suppress speech and political activity in the country's most populous region.

A Human Rights Watch report, launched yesterday in Nairobi, accuses government officials of detaining and harassing perceived political opponents.

The 44-page report,

Even ordinary citizens in the central region of Oromia have not been spared either, the report notes.

The ethnic-based party that controls the region, the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organisation, holds the largest share of parliamentary seats within the four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991.

Human Rights Watch said that election observers reporting on the May 15 parliamentary vote must acknowledge the extent to which these pervasive abuses have been used to prevent the emergence of dissenting voices and to punish those critical of government policies.

"The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division.

"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."

In recent months, regional authorities in Oromia have imposed new local institutions that restrict the large rural population's most basic freedoms.

For more than a decade, the region's ruling Oromo Democratic Peoples' Organisation (ODPO) has sought to solidify its grip on power by punishing dissenters and intimidating others into silence.

OPDO has enjoyed a position of unchallenged dominance in Oromia's governance since 1991, following the overthrow of former military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The following year, the ODPO only rival for political control of Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), withdrew from the political process after its candidates and supporters were harassed and intimidated in the run up to parliamentary elections.

Since then, the OLF has waged an ineffectual armed struggle that has provided the authorities with a rationalisation for repression.

Throughout this period, Oromo's ruling party has routinely accused its critics and opponents of involvement with the rebel group to justify subjecting them to extreme abuse and harassment.

In March, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed dozens of people in Oromia who had been arbitrarily detained, often repeatedly, when officials accused them of supporting the OLF.

In each of those cases, despite the inability of Ethiopian government authorities to produce any evidence to support their allegations, the detainees were held for weeks or months.

None of the former detainees interviewed had ever been tried for any offense connected to their arrest or confronted with any evidence that they had committed a crime.

Human Rights Watch documented cases in which security officials had arrested children as young as 11 and accused them of plotting armed insurrection.

Many of the detainees were severely beaten while in detention.Several detainees recounted how they were stripped naked and made to stand with partially full bottles of water tied to their testicles.

In the past six months, regional authorities have taken even greater efforts to stifle dissent in Oromia's countryside, where more than 85 Per cent of the population lives.

"Far from being isolated incidents, the patterns of human rights abuse that prevail in Oromia call into question the Ethiopian government's professed commitment to human rights," Takirambudde said.

In response to repeated demonstrations by students protesting government policies, regional and local authorities are expelled or imprisoned, the report says.

Several teachers confirmed that such fears were well - founded, describing how school administrators pressured them into gathering and reporting information about their students' political leanings.

Human Rights Watch urged international election observers to acknowledge the extent to which these abuses have restricted the possibility for meaningful political debate in the country's most populous region.

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