Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 3 May 2006

Zenawi’s Courts and Political Dissent: "Ethiopian Judiciary without Justice"


By Ashebir Alemu*

May 3, 2006 — This month (May 2006), the trial of the detained leaders of the Coalition of Democracy and Unity (CUD), Civil Society Organizations and Journalists will be started. The Western Embassies in Addis Ababa are giving contradictory statements about the trials. In the one hand, they demand the release of the political prisoners; on the other hand they talk of a "speedy, fair, and transparent trial". Is a speedy, fair and transparent trial possible for prisoners of conscious? The answer is an emphatic no! No where in the world, from the Soviet Union to China, political prisoners were given a fair and transparent trial. In the first place, there could not be an independent judiciary which would provide speedy, fair and transparent trial in a country where people are detained for their conscious. The contradictory statements of western governments about the pro-democracy detainees in Ethiopia are exemplary testimonies of western hypocrisy regarding democratization in the third world in general and in Africa in particular. This western hypocritical position makes it necessary to revisit, how Mr. Zenawi used in the last fourteen years the judiciary as an important instrument of quashing political dissent.

Since the coming to power of Mr. Zenawi in 1991, the Ethiopian people have been told over a thousand times that the golden era of justice has been ushered by the EPRDF. Despite this continued pretense, the Ethiopian people as ever are denied of justice. The justice system under Mr. Zenawi is not only corrupt but also dysfunctional. In its effort to completely subdue the judiciary to its wishes, Mr. Zenawi’s regime-summarily fired trained and experienced judges; [1] opened a "law school" for its cadres at the "Ethiopian Civil Service College" [2]; and the government routinely intervenes in court proceedings that the judges cannot operate independently. The testimony of one ex-judge under Mr. Zenawi is in order:

"In coming to decisions, we have been forced to give wrong verdicts against innocent citizens. In 1995, I was appointed as a Federal High Court Judge. During my tenure on the Bench, I was ordered to pass verdicts of 15 years in prison, on three defendants accused of killing supporters of the party in power (The Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front). But, to label people as criminals without any substantiated evidence is against my moral and professional standards. As a result, I was dismissed from office, having been informed by certain politicians who were entirely ignorant of any legal training, that I was "incompetent". They said that’s why I had been dismissed" [3]

In addition to lack of independence, the court system under Mr. Zenawi is completely dysfunctional. As a result, there are hundred of thousands of backlog of cases which are awaiting sentencing in both the regional and the federal courts. Because of the long litigation, thousands of business went bankrupt and more importantly societal peace disturbed as hundreds of thousands of offenders were let go unpunished for their crimes.

The record of the judiciary regarding political dissent is abysmally negative. The judicial system consistently failed in its conduct to adhere to the constitution and the numerous international conventions which Mr. Zenawi’s regime "jovially" acceded to. For the last fourteen years, it has been a standard practice for the government to arrest political opponents without proper court procedures. A close observer the judicial system in Ethiopia notes: "... for opposition political suspects ...there’s no question of producing a legal warrant before arrest, and the ’due process of law’ is conveniently ignored. That’s why today, there are thousands of clandestine detention centers in Ethiopia. Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations have at times exposed the human rights abuses, existing in such places. It’s curious that the Meles government denies they even exist! But everyone knows that, daily; people are taken from their homes or work places, and dragged off to detention centers. Why? Because they support opposition political parties" [4]

The court system in Ethiopia under Mr. Zenawi was engineered and tailored to be a partner in the violation of the human rights of the Ethiopian people and the leaders of the opposition and the civil society. The record of the courts itself testifies this. A quick look at how the courts dealt with people whom the regime branded as its opponents reveals the instrumentality of the courts in crushing political dissent.

Zenawi’s courts and Some Prominent Political Dissidents

1. Professor Asrat Woldeyes, President of the then All Amhara Peoples’ Organization, (APPO) [1992-1998]

Professor Asrat Woldeyes was arrested in 1992 and falsely accused of inciting inter-communal violence following an AAPO rally speech in Debre Berhan. Amnesty International all along maintained that the Professor was prisoner of conscience. Despite the trumped up charges by Mr. Zenawi’s government, the "independent" court gave Professor Woldeyes more than one prison sentence. While he was hospitalized in the Black Lion Hospital in 1998, Professor Asrat said to one US journalist the following about the charges and the performance of the court:
Well, I have multiple sentences. All those three charges... for which I have been sentenced, those sentences I have finished legally. In actual fact, given the date of parole, I have finished my prison sentence according to the law. I finished it about four months ago, five months ago. But I now have a fourth case, which is still going on after over two-and-a-half years. I am waiting for that sentence. That is why I am in prison. Because I have got a pending charge and because it is considered serious, I am not allowed to be out. The parole is given by the court and is dependent only on behavior in prison, not obeying rules and regulation, so nobody can deny me. Simply, politically, I am refused. All of my charges are the same charge, that I have opposed the government. Now in true legality, they should all be gathered under one charge, because it is one government and I am one person and the accusations are one. But they are divided purposely, so that I’ll have multiple cases and so that I will stay in prison for the rest of my life. Everybody else who is in prison, his case takes only six months or one year, but mine is every month. I go to court, I have an appointment, but even then it is not finished, and it’s two and a half years. I am still going every month to the court, except now while I’ve been in hospital. [5]

The only crime of Mr. Woldeyes was opposing the policies of the regime and exercising his right of speech. What was the performance of the "independent court" in the multiple charges of Mr. Woldeyes-rubber stamping the false accusation of Mr. Zenawi. No shred of objectivity and impartiality was observed in the court’s treatment of Mr. Woldeyes case..

2. Dr. Taye Woldesemayat, President of the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA) [1996-2002]

Professor Taye was arrested on May 30, 1996, and formally charged with terrorism and armed conspiracy against the government. The actual reason for his arrest, however, was his peaceful activities as president of the ETA. In the early 1990s, the ETA became a target of government repression when it peacefully protested against education policy changes made by the government. Following a three-year trial, during which no credible evidence was produced to support the charges against him; Dr. Taye was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. [6]

Dr. Taye’s appeal hearing was postponed nine times until the verdict was finally handed down in May 2002. During most of his incarceration Dr. Taye was held under extremely harsh conditions which included lengthy solitary confinement, greatly reduced family visits, being handcuffed regularly, and being held in an unsanitary, overcrowded, and poorly ventilated cell with some 200 other prisoners. In September 2001, Dr. Taye was relocated to a private and more comfortable cell as a result of an agreement between the Dutch and Ethiopian governments. The Dutch authorities, who were working with the Ethiopian government to improve the education program in the Ethiopian prison system, reportedly agreed to provide funding for the program only if Dr. Taye was appointed its coordinator. Dr. Taye accepted the position with the understanding that he would be allowed to meet regularly with the teachers who would be assisting him in implementing the program. [7]

Dr. Taye Woldesemayat was released from prison in Addis Ababa on appeal, after spending almost six years in prison. The Ethiopian government instructed its "independent court" to release Mr. Woldesemayat because of mounting international pressure. Subsequently, the Supreme Court "overturned" Dr. Taye’s 15-year prison sentence given by the Federal High Court and subsequently he was released from jail on May 14, 2002. What was the performance of the courts in this case? Instrumentality to the regime-when instructed to give a harsh sentence by Mr. Zenawi the court gave a harsh sentence, and again when the international pressure was unbearable Mr. Zenawi instructed the court to reduce the sentence and release Dr. Woldesemayat, the court released the Professor.

3. Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam (Ex-Head of EHRCO) and Dr. Berhanu Nega (Ex-president of Ethiopian Economic Association) [2001-?]

Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, founder and former head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and Dr. Berhanu Nega, a prominent economist and former president of the Ethiopian Economic Association were detained by Mr. Zenawi’s regime on May 8, 2001 following student protests and riots in Addis Ababa in April 2001. For weeks prior to their detention, the two academics have been targets of blatant accusations by the government security and law enforcement apparatus and by the state media, and their detention only constituted a logical conclusion of these campaigns of character assassination. [8]

According to the charges filed against Prof. Mesfin and Dr. Berhanu, they were arrested in connection with their presentation at a meeting at the auditorium of the National Lottery Administration where both allegedly "agitated AAU students into violence." As far as the AAU students are concerned there has not been any violence perpetuated by them. In fact, they were victims of violence, committed by police, who broke into the University campus. This is a well-established fact, and the Addis Ababa Police Commission has even admitted its action in this regard.
Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam and Dr. Berhanu were released on bail in June 2001 because of international pressure and media outcry. The case on which they were charged is not yet closed.

4. The TPLF Dissidents and the Seye Family and business persons [2001-?]

Mr. Zenawi’s government found a new and jovial strategy of quashing political dissent, i.e. accusing them of corruption. Following the internal power struggle within the TPLF and the emergence of the Mr. Zenawi’s group as a victor, a new legislation was rushed to ’parliament’ which provided for the establishment of the "Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission" on May 24, 2001. Following the declaration of war on "corruption" by Mr. Zenawi’s regime, Mr. Seye Abraha and many members of his family were thrown into jail on corruption charges.

It was fairly clear to any observer of Ethiopian politics that the detentions of Mr. Tamarat Layne, ex-Prime Minister, earlier and Mr. Seye Abraha later were politically motivated. As many prominent officials of the government like Mr. Sebehat Nega and the regime’s top friendly business partner, Sheik Mohammed Alamoudi are officially and openly engaged in corrupt practices, corruption is not a "crime" in Ethiopia for politicians as far as they follow the official line maintained by Mr. Zenawi. In fact, the whole system is built on corruption, if one removes corruption from the system, the system would crumble down. The sole reason for the detention of Mr. Abraha and many members of his family is political and the fear of Mr. Meles’ group that if Mr. Seye is left free he would garner support from the TPLF dominated Ethiopian army and the people of Tigray.

Interestingly, when Mr. Seye was granted bail by the courageous young judges of the federal instant court, which includes, the one of the present CUD detainees, Brtukan Midekssa, the Federal Supreme Court which is presided by the President of the Electoral Board, Mr. Kamal Bedri overturned the bail given to Mr. Abraha and the Prime Minister, Mr. Zenawi rushed an amendment to Anti-corruption law to prohibit bail for those suspected of corruption. Mr. Seye is still in detention and the Supreme Court has not yet given its ruling, though Mr. Abraha was detained for more than five years now. For more than a dozens of times his trial was postponed because of "lack of judges". What was the performance of the court in the case of Seye and his family members? It is revolting political loyalty to Mr. Zenawi.

5. Mecha and Tulema Development Association (MTDA) Leaders [2004-?]

The President of the Mecha and Tulema Development Association, Mr. Diribi Demissie and other leaders of the Association are under detention since April 2004. They were arrested on trumped up accusation of "terrorism" and "perpetrating violence". The main reason for their detention was, however, the MTDA’s opposition of the relocation of the capital of the Oromia regional state from Addis Ababa to Adama and the summary expulsion of Oromo students from the Addis Ababa University in 2004. There are numerous credible reports which indicate that the leaders of the MTDA and the Oromo students who were arrested with them were tortured and maltreated. In one of their over delayed court appearance in the past two-three months, the detainees appealed to the court that they were regularly tortured by the prison officials, the presiding judge instructed the head of the prison, who himself was allegedly engaged in the torturing of the Oromo detainees to investigate the matter and report back to the court. This shows the extent to which the courts are part of Mr. Zenawi’s torture and terrorizing machinery. If the court has a shred of independence, it would have independently investigated complaints of torture within prisons. Even if Mr. Zenawi after his electoral fiasco in May 2005 decided to relocate back the seat of the regional capital of Oromia back to Addis Ababa, the MTDA remained banned and its leaders are illegally detained. What was the action of the court in politically motivated detention and torture of the officials of the MTDA? It condones their illegal detention and torturing by prison officials.


The track record of the courts under Mr. Zenawi shows that the judiciary is neither independent nor capable of providing impartial judgment for those who were branded as "anti-peace", "anti-democratic" and "terrorist" by the government. The western governments well know of this fact. The problem with Ethiopian courts is not a problem of capacity building or computer file management system for which the Canadians invested millions of Dollars. The old adage about computing suffices here, "garbage in -garbage out". The capacity building funds of the Canadians was used to expedite the retrieving of the garbage emitted by the political court of Mr. Zenawi. In a recent interview to a pro Zenawi News Paper, the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Menbere Teshay Tadesse, who is as the same time, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, Director of the Judges and Prosecutors Training Center, COMESA Judge and also a fourth year Ph.D. student in law said that Ethiopia is the first African country in linking the courts by a Wide Area Network. The computerization of the work of the courts might be good but does not qualitatively change their performance and make them independent.

In a country which is run by a dictator, in a country the whole security apparatus, i.e. the police, the secret service and the army are under the private possession of one man; in a country where there is no freedom of speech, assembly and association; in a country where there is no rule of law, there cannot be an independent court. As a result, the double talk of donors for the release of the political prisoners and at the same time their speedy, transparent, and fair trial is ludicrous. The trial of the leaders of the CUD, civil society organizations and the journalists is sham and the courts are sham. The decision of the opposition leaders not to engage in this fraudulent exercise is a right one. Boycotting the illegitimate "judicial process" is a peaceful resistance. The opposition leaders should continue denying legitimacy to the sham institutions of Mr. Zenawi. If the American Embassy is confident of the independence of Mr. Zenawi’s court, it may perhaps outsource some of the lingering cases of Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib detainees to the tribunals of Mr. Kamal Bedri.
Building an "independent" court is only possible where is an all inclusive political dialogue about the future of democratization in Ethiopia. All Ethiopian political groups (CUD, UDEF, OLF, ONLF, TPLF, etc.) should come to the drawing board and find out a workable framework. This is the only way which leads the country out of the current malaise. Mr. Zenawi is a spent card; he lost all the opportunities to facilitate reconciliation and peaceful and democratic transition.

[1] As pointed out by close observer of the judiciary system under Mr. Zenawi during the course of these so-called ’ gime gema’, a total of 480 judges and public prosecutors were removed from office during the period 1996- 1997. Here, party-affiliated laymen (as distinct from the legally qualified), are given a free hand to blindly utter defamatory statements against the judges, See Lammii Guddaa, "Ethiopia: A Judiciary - without justice," ANB-BIA SUPPLEMENT, ISSUE/EDITION Nr 337 - 01/01/1998 [ http://ospiti.peacelink.it/anb-bia/nr337/e09.html] consulted 27.04.06

[2] Admission to this college is reserved to members of the ruling party and its affiliates. Many of judges in the federal and regional courts are formers students of this cadre school and they remain members of the ruling party, though not officially card carrying
[3] Lammii Guddaa, "Ethiopia: A Judiciary - without justice," ANB-BIA SUPPLEMENT, ISSUE/EDITION Nr 337 - 01/01/1998 [ http://ospiti.peacelink.it/anb-bia/nr337/e09.html] consulted 27.04.06

[4] Ibid.
[5] Wendy Belcher, " Prof. Asrat Woldeyes Speaks from Prison", Ethiopian Review, April 1998
[6] Committee on Human Rights, "Ethiopian Political Scientist Taye Woldesemayat Released from Prison", National Academies Study Process, May 14, 2002
[7] Ibid.
[8] "Justifying Charges Against Prof. Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu An Unenviable Task to Prosecutors", Addis Tribune [ http://www.addistribune.com/Archives/2001/05/11-05-01/Justifying.htm] consulted 27.04.06

[*] Independent Researcher in Amesterdam could be reached at ashebir_alemu@yahoo.com

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