Summary and Current Status
On July 20, 2007—four days after Ethiopian economist Befekadu Degefe, geographer Mesfin Woldemariam, economists Berhanu Nega and Muluneh Eyual and engineers Hailu Shawel and Gizachew Shifferaw were sentenced to life in prison and the deprivation of political rights—they were among a group of 38 opposition party officials (of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party), a human rights defender, and a journalist who received a presidential pardon, the restoration of their political rights, and their release from prison. They had been detained for more than 20 months under harsh conditions of confinement.
The detention, charges, and prosecution of Mr. Befekadu and his colleagues was met with widespread condemnation from many governments, including the United States and the European Union, and many human rights organizations. Eventually a group of Ethiopian elders, well respected by both the detainees and the Ethiopian government, was permitted to act as mediators in an attempt to find a mutually acceptable set of terms for negotiation and reconciliation. Mr. Befekadu and his colleagues have said that, in the spirit of reconciliation, they eventually agreed to sign a document drafted by the elders and negotiated by both sides, despite the government’s refusal to agree to any expectations on its part. The detainees signed the June 18, 2007 document in which they asked the public and the government for forgiveness in the hope that doing so would bring about a political resolution to a politically motivated charge and trial. According to Mr. Befekadu and his colleagues, it was agreed and included in the document that “All prisoners in the country detained on CUD matters would be released without precondition, that political dialogue between the government and the CUD would promptly resume, and that the party’s leaders would be allowed to resume party activity without any limitation.” According to the detainees, they never asked for a pardon—which, according to Ethiopian law must be requested by the defendants—and never agreed to receive one.
On November 1, 2005, Befekadu Degefe, Mesfin Woldemariam, Berhanu Nega, Muluneh Eyual, Hailu Shawel, and Gizachew Shifferaw were detained, along with other leaders of the Ethiopian opposition party, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party, and hundreds of CUD supporters. The detentions followed widespread protests on October 31, 2005, against the contested May 2005 general elections. The CUD had called for a stay-home strike to be followed by peaceful demonstrations, but, when police began shooting with live ammunition, violence erupted. On December 21, Mr. Befekadu, Professor Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Muluneh, and Mr. Gizachew were among 123 politicians, journalists, and civil society activists and 8 organizations (4 independent news organizations and the 4 political parties that united to form the CUD) charged by the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa with a range of crimes, many of which carry the death penalty. (See Background section below for details about the charges.) Twenty-one of the individuals originally charged were released shortly thereafter. Of the 111 defendants who remained charged, approximately 80 were in custody. (The remaining individuals were either in hiding or were residing abroad.) Dr. Taye Woldesmiate, an Ethiopian political scientist and president of the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association, was among those charged and was tried in absentia. (He was abroad at the time of the arrests and has not to date returned to Ethiopia.)
The details of the charges reportedly were revealed to some of the defendants in a hearing on December 21, 2005. Others received the details of the charges against them later. On January 4, 2006, the Federal High Court refused the defendants’ appeal to be released on bail. The trial began on May 2, 2006, before the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa and proceeded slowly. Amnesty International considered Mr. Befekadu, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Muluneh, and Mr. Gizachew, along with other leaders of the CUD, to be prisoners of conscience.
Befekadu Degefe is an economist and former professor of economics at Addis Ababa University. He has been president of the Ethiopian Economic Association and a senior economist at the U.N. Economic Commission. Mr. Befekadu is also a CUD member of Parliament-elect.
In May 2005, general elections were held in Ethiopia. After many weeks of vote counting, it was announced that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)) had won, but that the CUD had won more than 100 of the 547-seat parliament, including all 23 parliamentary seats reserved for the capital, Addis Ababa. The CUD claimed that the elections were rigged and that the ruling EPRDF had sought to intimidate CUD supporters. After observing the elections in Ethiopia, the European Union’s Election Observation Mission to Ethiopia issued a report citing irregularities and stating that the elections did not meet international standards for free, fair, and transparent elections. On June 8, 2005, soldiers shot dead several dozen people in Addis Ababa who were protesting alleged election fraud. Thousands of opposition party supporters were detained, and some reportedly were badly beaten. After several weeks, all of them reportedly were released.
When Ethiopia’s parliament convened on October 10, 2005, it was boycotted by virtually every one of the newly elected CUD members. The prime minister publicly accused the CUD of planning violence and stripped the boycotting members of Parliament of their parliamentary immunity. The CUD claims that, in the weeks prior to the boycott, some 800 of its members and supporters were arrested. In mid October the European Parliament informed the Ethiopian government that it was considering cutting development aid to Ethiopia if the government did not stop the persecution and intimidation of the members and supporters of the opposition political parties. (The European Commission and the E.U. member states are among Ethiopia’s biggest donors, contributing approximately U.S. $490 million.)
In late October 2005, when the CUD called for a stay-home strike to be followed by a series of peaceful demonstrations and a general strike and boycott of government businesses, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused Mr. Befekadu, Professor Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Gizachew, Mr. Muluneh, and the other leaders of the CUD of planning a “violent conspiracy” against the government. Between November 1 and 4, 2005, 42 demonstrators were reportedly shot dead by police, and approximately 200 were wounded. Reliable reports indicate that hundreds of people were detained.
Mr. Befekadu, Professor Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Gizachew, Mr. Muluneh, and approximately 46 others were brought to the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa on November 7, 2005. The court denied the detainees bail and extended their detention three times to allow for further police investigations of government accusations that the detainees were involved in a violent conspiracy. The court also ordered that the detainees be given “ample time” to consult with legal counsel and that access to medical care be facilitated. On December 1, the court ordered that the detainees be held for 15 additional days and stated that this would be the final detention order. The prosecution was told by the court that charges had to be brought by the end of that 15-day period.
As stated above, on December 21 Mr. Befekadu, Professor Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Hailu, Mr. Muluneh, and Mr. Gizachew were among 131 people charged by prosecutors with a range of crimes, many carrying the death penalty. Twenty-one were subsequently released because the charges against them were dropped. Amnesty International reported that the defendants included opposition party leaders or supporters detained since early November 2005, newly elected members of parliament, prominent human rights defenders (Professor Mesfin, Daniel Bekele, and Netsanet Demissie), independent journalists, individuals of Ethiopian origin who had been living abroad for many years, and many members of the CUD. Four independent news organizations and all four political parties belonging to the CUD were also charged. According to Amnesty International, the defendants were divided into groups facing different charges. The charges included “outrages against the Constitution,” obstructing the National Election Board, inciting and organizing armed uprising, and high treason. Most of the defendants were also charged with “genocide,” reported Amnesty International, on the grounds of allegations of the beating of an ethnic Tigrayan, arson against the property of two Tigrayans, causing fear and mental harm to members of an ethnic group, and harming members of the ruling EPRDF by excluding them from social events and funerals.
With the exception of the secretary general of the CUD, Muluneh Eyual, all of the defendants in custody were held in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, where conditions were reported to be harsh. Most of the defendants were held in cells with 90-100 common criminals, some of whom suffered from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, and the cells were infested with rodents. Access to their families and legal representatives were severely restricted and were not permitted in private. (Mr. Muluneh reportedly was transferred from Kaliti Prison to Kerchele Central Prison, also in Addis Ababa, on April 8, 2006, and was believed to be held in a dark cell in solitary confinement for a number of months. He reportedly was informed that he was transferred there because he allegedly had been disrespectful to members of Parliament who visited him in prison seeking his support and that of the other incarcerated CUD leaders to take over the administration of the Addis Ababa City Council in their absence. He reportedly was also told that he would be kept there until he stopped speaking in his native Kembata language during family visits and stopped wearing t-shirts with the CUD logo. It is our understanding that Mr. Muluneh went on a hunger strike to protest his transfer there.)