Africa, Politics

Ethiopia kicks Amnesty International out the country

By Khadija Patel 2 September 2011

Hot on the heels of detaining opposition politicians, Ethiopia has expelled human rights watchdog Amnesty International from the country. As it extends its begging bowl further to the West, this brush with a human rights agency is set to intensify the debate around the political implications of aid to Ethiopia. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement and Olbana Lelisa of the Oromo People’s Congress were arrested on 27 August after they spoke with Amnesty International researchers studying the incidence of human rights abuses in the East African state.  Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told reporters that Gerba was charged under the country’s counter-terrorism laws. Gerba is alleged to have ties to the freshly-outlawed Oromo Liberation Front, which is fighting for independence for Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group in the country’s coffee growing region.

It is as yet unclear what charges have been levelled against the other detainee, Lelisa. The men are being held in the infamous federal police investigation centre, ‘Maikelawi’, reported to be a government torture centre.  Detainees at Maikelawi are generally denied access to lawyers or visits from family for up to two months. The Ethiopian government in turn “refutes absolutely the allegation that there is a policy or practice of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and routine torture by the police, prison officers and other members of the security services and the military”.

Opposition leaders insist that despite the government’s protestations of terrorism, the detention of the two men is politically motivated. Both men had met with an Amnesty International delegation investigating human rights abuses shortly before they were detained. The London office of Amnesty International claims that on the same day Gerba and Lelisa were detained, the Amnesty International delegation in question was called to a meeting with Ethiopian government officials where they were instructed to leave Ethiopia immediately. Amnesty International alleges the delegation was under constant surveillance during the 12 days they spent in the country before being expelled. A government spokesman is quoted by Reuters refuting allegations that the men were arrested for talking to Amnesty International, calling the allegation an “unfounded fabrication”. He was not able to offer any confirmation that Amnesty International had indeed been asked to vacate Ethiopia.

While it is unclear what exactly Amnesty International was investigating in Ethiopia at the time, it is widely believed that the human rights watchdog is following up on a BBC report that alleged that the Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres has used billions of dollars in development aid as a tool for political repression. The detained opposition politicians were quoted by the BBC report that charged the Ethiopian government with abusing Western aid.

In response to the BBC report, the Ethiopian government refuted the allegations, pointing out instead that as well as investigations by the Ethiopian government, “the Donors’ Assistance Group, a consortium of 26 donor governments and international organisations such as the World Bank, based in Addis Ababa” also found no basis to such allegations after their own investigations.

The Ethiopian government argues that allegations of the abuse of aid will stymie relief efforts to the country that is suffering its worst drought in more than 60 years. On Tuesday iMaverick reported that Ethiopia has issued a detailed request for emergency assistance from the international community. “The total net emergency food and non-food requirements for the period July to December 2011 amounts to $398,439,730,” revealed the report from the Ethiopian government detailing the severity of the food crisis in the country. At a time when Ethiopia is imploring the international community for more aid, allegations of aid misuse will prove a major obstacle to Ethiopia actually receiving the aid it insists it desperately needs.   

As Ethiopia claims the detained men have links to terrorist groups, human rights activists expressed concern at the liberal use of anti-terrorism legislation in the East African state. Woubshet Taye of the Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu of Feteh newspaper were detained without charge in June. On 29 June, the government publicly accused them, along with two members of an opposition party, the Ethiopian National Democratic party, and five people it did not identify, of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Prosecutors allege the journalists were involved in a plot to sabotage electricity and telephone lines, claiming the charges are unrelated to the profession of the journalists. Human rights groups, however, believe the Ethiopian government is using the pretext of terrorism to silence dissent in the country.

The expulsion of Amnesty International from Ethiopia now proves a new challenge to the Ethiopian government as it dances awkwardly between imploring Western leaders for aid without conforming to their human rights standards. DM


Read more:

  • Ethiopian opposition leaders held after meeting rights group in Reuters Africa;
  • Opposition leaders arrested in Ethiopia in IOL;
  • Ethiopia: Two Politicians Said to Be Held After Interviews in The New York Times.

Photo: Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi. (Reuters)

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