U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011
The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to political influence. The upper house of parliament has sole responsibility for judging the constitutionality of proposed new laws, handling judicial appointments, and reviewing judicial conduct. Courts have the ability to convict defendants on charges not raised by the prosecution.
Regional offices of the federal Ministry of Justice, known as bureaus of justice, monitored developments in local courts, but the federal judicial presence in the regions was otherwise limited. Some regional courts had jurisdiction over both local and federal matters, as the federal courts in those jurisdictions were not operational. Many citizens residing in rural areas generally had little access to formal judicial systems and relied on traditional mechanisms of resolving conflict.
A severe lack of experienced staff in the judicial system sometimes made the application of the law unpredictable. The government continued to train lower court judges and prosecutors and made effective judicial administration the primary focus of this training.
The seventh criminal branch of the Federal Court of First Instance, headed by three judges, handled cases involving juvenile offenses and cases of sexual abuse of women and children. There was a large backlog of juvenile cases, and accused children often remained in detention with adults until officials heard their cases. There were also credible reports that domestic violence and rape cases often were delayed significantly and given low priority.
The law provides legal standing to some preexisting religious and traditional courts and allows federal and regional legislatures to recognize decisions of such courts. By law all parties to a dispute must agree to use a traditional or religious court before such a court may hear a case, and either party can appeal to a regular court at any time. Sharia (Islamic) courts may hear religious and family cases involving Muslims. In addition other traditional systems of justice, such as the Council of Elders, continued to function. These customary mechanisms resolved disputes for the majority of citizens who lived in rural areas. Some women complained of lack of access to free and fair hearings in the traditional justice system because they were excluded by custom from participation in the Council of Elders and because there was strong gender discrimination in rural areas.
By law accused persons have the right to a fair public trial by a court of law within a “reasonable time,” a presumption of innocence, the right to be represented by legal counsel of their choice, and the right to appeal. The law gives defendants the right to present witnesses and evidence in their defense, cross-examine prosecution witnesses, and access government-held evidence. However, in practice the government did not always respect the right of access to evidence it held. In some sensitive cases deemed to involve matters of national security, notably the Ginbot 7 and OLF trials, detainees stated that authorities initially denied them the right to see attorneys. The court system does not use trial by juries. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that persons charged with corruption were denied access to evidence against them prior to their trials.
Judicial inefficiency and lack of qualified staff often resulted in serious delays in trial proceedings. The Public Defender’s Office provided legal counsel to indigent defendants, although its scope and quality of service remained limited due to the shortage of attorneys.
During the year 31 persons were charged with terrorist activities under the antiterrorism proclamation, including 12 journalists, opposition political figures, and activists based in the country; two foreign journalists; and 17 Ethiopians living abroad who were charged in absentia. The first formal charges in such cases were filed on September 6. Several international human rights organizations raised concerns over the law’s broad definition of terrorism, as well as its severe penalties, its broad rules of evidence, and the discretionary powers afforded police and security forces. In at least one case defense attorneys were not given access to the prosecution’s evidence before the start of the trial.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government arrested more than 100 persons between March and September, including opposition political figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers. The government charged several of those arrested with terrorist or seditious activity, but observers found the evidence presented at trials to be either open to interpretation or indicative of acts of a political nature rather than linked to terrorism.
Estimates on the number of political prisoners varied. Domestic and international NGOs estimated that there were 200 to 300 political prisoners and detainees at year’s end. The government did not permit access by international human rights organizations.
From March 13 to 16, in the Oromia region the government arrested members of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC). The opposition parties stated that the government arrested 74 of their members and claimed that the arrests were politically motivated. The government stated that authorities arrested 120 persons, and that those arrested were affiliated with the OLF.
A second wave of arrests between June and September included a number of prominent journalists, political opposition figures, and activists, many of whom the government alleged were involved with terrorism. For example, on September 14, authorities arrested Andualem Arage, the vice chairman of the opposition front Medrek and a Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) official; the well known blogger and journalist Eskinder Nega; and the UDJ official Natnael Mekonnen. Representatives of the opposition said that the arrests were politically motivated. The trial continued at year’s end.
Adapted from the Ethiopian Law and Justice Society