Democracy in action amid authoritarian reaction
By Yared Tsegaye, June 23, 2020
As police brutality accompanies the pandemic fight, parliamentarians and the government’s human rights watchdog have clashed over enforcement of the state of emergency decree
(Ethiopia-Insight) — “They have reached the first gate. They are coming down to the blocks to you”, a taxi driver warns residents at the Gofa Mebrat Hayil Condominium in Addis Ababa. The reason for vigilance in the decade-old vast compound, hosting some 180 apartment blocks, is the arrival of city police. They come to start their special pandemic patrols every day after 2pm.
Tasked with enforcing activities prohibited under the state of emergency decree put in place on April 8 to control COVID-19, police trucks roam the compound on a daily basis. Informed by a regular warning, the residents scatter. However, the neighborhood also serves as a source of income for hundreds of youths, e.g. door-to-door delivery boys; taxi drivers; coffee girls—who rely on daily wages. These groups are in fear because of the arbitrary mass detentions occurring when they are already grappling for their survival.
“They force you to get into the police cars after beating you without explanations. They ask why you have come out of your home to work,” says Azimeraw Kifle. He is among the delivery boys known as ‘shebellas’— which means ‘handsome’ but is also sometimes a term for young men, often from Amhara, who do odd jobs. Azimeraw has been witnessing the detentions for over a month now.
On one Wednesday afternoon, 27 March, Ethiopia Insight was at the compound while city police beat people going about their day, taking them away en masse in a pick-up. They often drive people to nearby police stations and send them back with a warning after physical punishment.
As has occurred elsewhere, COVID-19 led Ethiopia to fight the deadly virus under the umbrella of a national emergency. As of 22 June, there were 4,663 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia with 75 fatalities. The government declared an emergency on the constitutional grounds of controlling the public health threat. A ministerial committee was formed to oversee and coordinate the response. Later, a regulation to implement the SoE was decreed, with the possibility to add more restrictions as needed. An inquiry board was also set up, with its seven members all from the still one-party dominated parliament. This board, the constitution says, scrutinizes the executive during the emergency.
The details in the regulation, some local and international rights groups agree, are not that restrictive given the urgent need to fight the virus and considering the threat to millions of Ethiopians, many already struggling with deep-rooted poverty. The regulation, effective from April 11, contained measures such as outlawing handshakes, gatherings of more than four people, and large assemblies for any social and religious purposes, among others aimed at enforcing social distancing.
However, in the weeks and months after the emergency was declared, there continued to be a disparity between the letter of the law and its implementation. Accounts of mass detentions harassment have been heard more frequently in the capital city since 11 April. Law enforcement, including Federal Police, patrol the streets as part of the response, usually with up to seven officers on one truck, thereby risking transmission of COVID-19 among themselves. Such is the tension between theory and practice.
In the capital, police reportedly violated basic legal principles of strict necessity and proportionality. Some residents posted their experience on social media, accusing officers of abuse. Ruth Yitbarek’s story went viral. Ruth, an influential young feminist and campaign manager at The Yellow Movement—a group of volunteer university students working with vulnerable young women and campaigning against sexism—recounted brutal police action against herself and her siblings during Ethiopian Easter on 18 April.
Ruth was beaten by armed officers she described as “soldiers” while walking with her younger sisters. After having a conversation with the officers, who ordered the sisters to keep apart, they left their vehicle and hit her. “With the pain and my anger, I didn’t properly sleep for two days. But what made my pain worse was knowing their belief that there is no one to stop them for doing as they please,” Ruth shared on Twitter.
Atnaf Birhane, program director at the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), which was established last year, believes the implementation of the SOE decree has not not consistent and law-enforcing bodies have acted arbitrarily. “The need for a state for emergency is for the public good and justifiable. But the implication on the ground seems to be that citizens will only respect the restrictive measures when the police is violent with them,” he commented to Ethiopia Insight.
For example, the regulation initially compelled citizens to wear face masks in public places. But on 27 May, this was extended to a more restrictive rule of having to cover the mouth and nose if out of house. Still, 1,941 people were arrested in Addis Ababa for not wearing face masks, according to a statement by the Addis Ababa Police Commission, on Saturday 16 May. Police had, however, not stated that those detainees were in public places. Witnesses said people who put masks on were also detained while the arbitrary arrests were going on.
“We see a huge risk with the implementation of the state of emergency decree if it continues to be handled with criminal sanctions. We have put recommendations that the decree considers redressing penalties with civil sanctions,” says Daniel Bekele, Commissioner at the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Daniel was a rights activist much of his professional career. Before his current role that began in July 2019, he was a senior advisor at the Amnesty International. For six years before that, he worked in top roles at Human Rights Watch.
“Detaining people for minor offenses contradicts the government’s early decisions to release prisoners to decongest detention facilities,” the commissioner told Ethiopia Insight. It is justifiable if the state of emergency some human rights on public health grounds, according to Daniel. But these should be informed by international standards, including the principles of strict necessity and proportionality, legality and other requirements, he noted.
EHRC is currently surveying the human rights situations in Ethiopian detention centers and police stations while visitation rights are prohibited. The institution has been publicizing its criticism of the police’s human rights record and urged restraint. On 7 May, it presented an legal analysis with recommendations for ministerial committee. One of its recommendations was to allow “a limited visit of prisoners with the necessary precautions together with arrangements for prisoners to have phone calls with families and their religious leaders.”
International rights organizations have also been assessing whether Ethiopia’s enforcement of COVID-19 measures is in line with the international standards. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of these organizations. Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director, agrees that some forms of restrictions on human rights are consistent with the need to protect the public health. However, she believes some of the measures are counterproductive in effectively addressing the crisis.
“Authorities should really use their discretion to issue warnings rather than make arrests for non-violent offenses, and work to end the practice of mass, arbitrary arrests,” Bader wrote in a response to Ethiopia Insight.
Police forces across the federation have arrested people smoking hookah or chewing khat in small establishments. In Addis, 1,523 people were arrested for similar cases until 25 May with 74 of them at a prison term from 15 days to three months, police said in a statement. 556 people were penalized with a fine up to 20,000 Birr ($600 average).
“Prioritize public health education and information rather than criminal sanctions for minor infractions and consider civil sanction including community service as opposed to criminal sanctions and imprisonment for minor offences,” is one of the recommendations in the EHRC analysis.
Elsewhere, the authorities have been even more draconian under the guise of the emergency. There are reports of politically motivated arrests in Oromia, Southern Nations, and Tigray regions. In Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, a dispute between police officers and residents at a place known as 05 killed one man and injured two others on Sunday 18 May. Eyewitnesses said the incident happened as police officers enforced social distancing. Addis Maleda newspaper reported that a second injured person passed away on 23 May in hospital.
In Amhara, a directive to restrict public transport into the region was suddenly announced on 29 March and implemented at midnight that day. Ethiopia Insight learnt from passengers on transport going from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar that they had to spend the night and days at the border road of Abay Bereha (‘Abay Desert’) as movement was forbidden at such short notice. Some had to return back to Gohatsion, a town in neighboring Oromia, and had to pay double for spending the night before Oromia itself banned transport activities on 30 March. Other regions took similar measures.
In Oromia, there are also accusations against the police that they attacked health professionals and interfered in their work, although the alleged motive is not clear. A statement from Oromia Physicians Association (OPA) on 5 June accused regional law enforcement of brutality within the emergency room of Nekemte Hospital. The statement claims an incident on 3 June when “members from the law-enforcement body went into the hospital’s emergency room indiscriminately beating health professionals and supportive staffs and attendants of patients.” The OPA statement further accused law enforcement of going as far as intimidating hospital administrators, a physician, and other staff on duty at “gunpoint”.
State of inquiry
Whenever Ethiopia resort to emergency measures, there is a debate about how independent the parliament’s oversight board is. The constitution says a State of Emergency Inquiry Board, “comprising of seven persons to be chosen and assigned by the House from among its members and from legal experts.” Politicians and commentators questioned the neutrality of the board set up to monitor the state of emergency declared on 8 October 2016. The debate focused on whether ruling party board members can provide effective scrutiny.
According to an HoPR list of members of standing committees, the current inquiry board is composed of members of three major committees. They are: Petros Woldesenbet, chair of the inquiry board from the Legal and Justice Affairs Standing Committee; Tesfaye Daba Wakjira, a long-serving MP, board deputy chair and on the Foreign Relations and Peace Affairs Standing Committee; Momina Mohammed from the Women, Youth and Social Affairs Standing Committee; and Fantaye Wondim, also from the Legal, Justice and Democracy Affairs Standing Committee.
Rights groups argue the board should have ensured that all measures adopted are in line with constitutional and international requirements. In practice, that does not seem to have happened. Rather than holding the executive to account, board members praised the one-month SOE activities of the Council of Ministers. In an interview with the state-owned Amharic Daily Addis Zemen, published May 20, board chair Petros denied accusations of inhumane treatment and arbitrary arrests, highlighting that the board has reached a “good understanding with the Council of Ministers” on its activities so far and the identity of people arrested under the decree and reasons for doing so.
“We have found no action that violated human rights while enforcing the emergency decree,” Petros said in his lengthy interview. “The board (inquiry board) has spoken with detained people in person. But not one person has complained to say ‘my human rights are violated,’” he added.
In breach of its constitutional responsibility under Article 93 (6) (a), the inquiry board has yet “to make public within one month the names of all individuals arrested on account of the state of emergency together with the reasons for their arrest.” Regardless of this failing, Petros was focused on criticizing the government organ trying to hold the government to account: he accused the Human Rights Commission for failing to discuss its concerns about implementation of the SOE with the relevant government organs and the board before “running to publicize to the media”.
“While we should be supporting the efforts to save peoples’ lives, I believe it is inappropriate (of the EHRC) to publish such statements than discussing on the problems,” he said. “I don’t believe the commission’s report is true. On the contrary, we have learnt the law-enforcing members in the police are being bullied.”
However, Ethiopia Insight learnt from the EHRC of individual and institutional discussions to make recommendations and share its concerns both with the Ministerial Committee and the inquiry board. The EHRC has also been consulting with entities concerned with public health and civil society groups.
Mesud Gebeyehu is the executive director for the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations. The consortium was one of the voices to caution about the measures being taken under the cover of collective safety. Mesud fears if the inquiry board favors the authorities and takes on the EHRC, it is not performing its critical oversight role. “The inquiry board has a wrong understanding towards the role of the EHRC during emergency periods. They believe it has a limited power to check on rights abuses. They are wrong. This is the real time where we need the Human Rights Commission most,” he told Ethiopia Insight.
Tesfaye Daba, the deputy chair, defends the board’s stance. In a meeting held on 13 May reported by the Amharic bi-weekly Reporter, Tesfaye was critical of the statements about abuse stated by the EHRC and its call for amendment of directives from the SoE. He expressed his anger with the critical stance of the EHRC as “testing” the board. “The commission’s critical statements on the directives passed by the ministerial committee should not be allowed to pass easily,” he said. “The motives behind the EHRC should seriously be considered.” The inquiry board believes that the EHRC is interfering its powers.
Tesfaye’s defensive stance is also relevant to Ruth’s case. When feeling the pain of “not having a protector in this country,” Ruth tried to report the issue via a non-functioning toll-free number. She then made another call to Tesfaye. ‘I do not know anything you are talking about,’ he said before hanging up on me,” Ruth said. “Is this what serving the public means? Is this how being a people’s representative is defined?” she asked on Twitter.Thanks to the power of social media, Adanech Abebe, the Attorney General, and the Federal Police called Ruth and discussed what happened to her. “There is no order given to the national defense forces to patrol in Addis. It will be difficult to identify the identity of them (the “soldiers” beating Ruth),” was their response.
On 29 May, the EHRC presented to a special session of parliament a draft amendment bill for its establishing proclamation. The commission proposed a mandate “for investigating the human rights situation during a declared state of emergency period.” The House discussed the bill and sent it for a review to the Legal and Justice Affairs Standing Committee, where inquiry board chair Petros sits.
Some lawmakers asked the standing committee to check if the draft amendment concerning EHRC’s role during SoEs is in line with the legal powers of the inquiry board during an emergency. “In addition to the State of Emergency Inquiry Board, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is also mandated to monitor human rights at all times, thereby complementing the work of the Inquiry Board, particularly on human rights issues that may not be covered by the Board,” had EHRC noted in the analysis.
Mesud said the SOE decree itself was legislated without consultation with human rights organizations and other frontline stakeholders, including EHRC. “Had they consulted the EHRC, it would have tabled its recommendations that came to be seen as criticisms. More importantly, the commission is more credible and not one-sided as it has close partnership both with civil society and government,” Mesud pointed.
Federal ministers including Adanech and Peace Minister Muferiat Kamil have also been criticizing the Human Rights Commission for voicing its concern. This follows its 7 May report, which asks for a proper check on “the increased exceptional powers to the executive” and “suspension of rights in a flexible manner in view of ever-changing objective circumstances”. “The statements from the commission (EHRC) are not appropriate. If these were concerned to violations of human rights, it would have been appropriate to its mandate. But it has been criticizing the emergency law and was asking for some articles to be repealed,” she said.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia is facing a battle against the virus that has now begun community transmission. But the risks of human rights and police brutality have arguably become more threatening than the COVID-19 itself. Law enforcement seem to have the backing of the government in their actions taken for the ‘public good’.
“As the purpose of the Proclamation is not to punish but save the people from the epidemic, we agreed that the effectiveness of law enforcement must be assessed by its contribution to stopping the epidemic rather than the numbers and severity of the punishment,” read Adanech’s Tweet on June 2.
Yet the EHRC plans to keep challenging the decision. “A measure to save lives should not be a reason to take lives,” Commissioner Daniel said.