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Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law: A Tool to Stifle Dissent



By Oakland Institute & EDLC

Abstract 

The government of Ethiopia routinely uses its vague and overly broad anti-terrorism law to stifle freedom of expression and political opposition. This is the conclusion reached by the United Nations, the world’s leading democracies, international human rights organizations, and numerous other groups. This report compiles and elaborates on the extensive factual and legal findings of the law’s critics, as well as the Ethiopian government’s misuse of the law. The conclusions these critics have reached are both inescapable and correct: the flawed anti-terrorism law must be revised and its misuse by the government stopped.

Introduction 

Ethiopia’s highly controversial anti-terrorism law, Proclamation No. 652/2009,1 was enacted in 2009. In the course of deliberations over the law, some members of the Ethiopian parliament, as well as human rights organizations, journalists, and others, expressed grave concerns that the law contained an overly broad and vague definition of terrorism, gave the police and security services unprecedented new powers, usurped citizens’ constitutional rights, and shifted the burden of proof to the accused.

Those fears have proven to be well founded. During the six years since the enactment of the law, people from all walks of life have been found to be “terrorists” or are awaiting trial as such. Political opponents of the administration have been kidnapped from other countries and brought to Ethiopia to stand trial under the law. Some have been charged with crimes for actions that took place before the law even took effect.

 Many of those charged report having been tortured, and the so-called confessions that have been obtained as a result have been used against them at trial. In 2013, Human Rights Watch released the report, They Want a Confession, detailing extensive evidence of torture and forced confessions in Ethiopia’s notorious Maekelawi prison.2 The report provides harrowing testimonies from thirty-five former detainees at Maekelawi prison (where most political prisoners are taken as they await trial) and their family members. Interrogations, isolation, arbitrary detention, dire conditions, and torture are common. The report describes detainees being tortured in order to force confessions, extract information, and obtain signatures on false documents. It notes that detainees are not always aware of what they are signing–either because documents are in Amharic, or because the detainees are not allowed to see the documents they are signing.3

Moreover, both on its face and as applied, the law violates international human rights law, as well as modern criminal justice and due process standards. In short, the law is a tool of repression, designed and used by the Ethiopian government to stifle its critics and political opposition, and criminalize the robust discussion of matters of enormous public interest and importance.

These are not simply the conclusions of human rights groups or the lawyers who have authored this report, as the long list of those who have sharply criticized the Ethiopian government for the content and misuse of its anti-terrorism law includes the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers,4 the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights,5 and the governments of the United States6 and the United Kingdom,7 as well as the European Union.8

While legitimate anti-terrorism laws have been enacted in a number of countries, these critics of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law have detailed—as will be described throughout this report—how it goes beyond these other laws in criminalizing behavior that ordinarily would and should be considered a legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association.9

This report will summarize many but by no means all of the findings of the critics of the law, as well as identify specific legal authority that supports critics’ claims that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law violates international human rights law, and is inconsistent with modern criminal justice legal standards. But first it will tell the stories of just a small number of those unjustly targeted by the law.

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