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2005-06-16

Crackdown on Dissent in Ethiopia

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Following last month’s elections, Ethiopian security forces are cracking down on protests against alleged fraud. We speak to Human Rights Watch about police violence and a peace agreement that aims to address election-related complaints. [includes rush transcript]

The Ethiopian government is cracking down on protests against possible fraud in the May 15 parliamentary elections. Human Rights Watch reported yesterday that police have arrested several thousand people in the capital, Addis Ababa, and nine other cities.

Last Wednesday, government security forces responded to rock-throwing protesters by opening fire on large crowds, killing at least 36 people and wounding more than 100. The Ethiopian government blames the opposition group Coalition for Unity and Democracy for fomenting the unrest. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi justified the decision to monitor opposition leaders

  • Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:
    "When these people incited the violence and had their tickets ready to leave the country, that I think its stretching too far, so we have said you are not leaving while you are inciting violence and stoking fires here, they have been under police surveillance just in case we need to detain them, if things get hotter they will be detained without any question, if that is intimidation so be it but I think we have bent back more than any country I know of would be willing to do."

On Sunday, police shot dead newly-elected opposition lawmaker Tesfaye Aden Jara. Officials said six police officers have been arrested in connection with the killing. The European Union mediated an agreement Tuesday between the main political parties so that all parties can play a role in the investigation of election complaints. Following the agreement, opposition leader Hailu Shawel was released from house arrest.

  • Chris Albin-Lackey, researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. He was in Ethiopia leading up to the May 15 elections.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Prime Minister justified the decision to monitor opposition leaders:

PRIME MINISTER MELES ZENAWI: When these people incited the violence and had their tickets ready to leave the country, that, I think, is stretching it a bit too far. So we have said, you’re not leaving while you are inciting violence and stoking fires here. They have been under police surveillance, just in case we need to detain them. If things get hotter, they will be detained without any question. If that is intimidation, so be it, but I think we have bent back more than any country, that I know of, would be willing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaking to a journalist on Friday. On Sunday, police shot dead newly elected opposition lawmaker Tesfaye Aden Jara. Officials said six police officers have been arrested in connection with the killing. The European Union mediated an agreement Tuesday between the main political parties so that all parties can play a role in the investigation of election complaints. Following the agreement, opposition leader Hailu Shawel was released from house arrest.

We’re joined now to talk about the crackdown on dissent by Human Rights Watch researcher, Chris Albin-Lackey. He was in Ethiopia leading up to the May 15 elections. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation? What’s happening?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Well, what’s really terrible about what’s going on in Ethiopia right now is that these elections were regarded by almost everyone as a watershed event in the country’s history. They were by far the most open and competitive poll the country has ever seen. In fact, they were the only open and competitive poll Ethiopia has ever had.

But the events of the past week give reason to doubt that, in fact, Ethiopia is moving down the path to democracy to the degree that many people thought the elections indicated. What’s perhaps even more disturbing than the shooting down of the 37 protesters and the wounding of 100 more and the arrests of all of these people is the government’s contemptuous reaction to the international outcry these events have sparked. The government has, until now, refused to even consider an inquiry into the events and, in fact, has responded to any suggestions that its security forces might in any way be to blame by simply blaming the leaders of the opposition for everything that’s happened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who has been arrested? Who has been killed?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Well, early last week, hundreds of student protesters were arrested in Addis Ababa and hundreds more were arrested in other towns throughout the country. Many of those were since released, but since then the government has continued to target opposition supporters and student activists in Addis Ababa and elsewhere for arrest. Many people in Addis Ababa have disappeared, and people assume they’ve been arrested and taken to detention facilities outside of the capital, but no one really knows how many people have been arrested, who they are, why they are being held, or how they’re being treated in custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this tie in at all to the situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Well, it has implications for it. The opposition coalition that did so well in these elections actually takes a very hard line on the issue of the border dispute with Eritrea. And many people worry that their presence in the parliament may actually cause the government to feel as though has to take a harder line with Eritrea.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done now?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Well, the Ethiopian government first of all needs to stop arresting opposition supporters and student activists. Perhaps more urgently, it has to open up these detention centers, especially a massive facility south of Addis Ababa, called Ziway Detention Center, to international scrutiny. Up until now, the Red Cross hasn’t even been able to gain access to any of these facilities. And given the government’s past record of detainee abuse, there’s every reason to worry that many of the people being held right now are being mistreated.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the situation now in Ethiopia. Could any of this have been predicted before the elections?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Nobody’s been able to predict anything that’s happened since the elections. Even the degree to which the elections were positive and open and competitive, no one predicted. Certainly, though, the events of the past week, I think, have really shocked almost everyone who has been following Ethiopia over the course of the past several months. There was a lot of optimism following the May 15 elections that they really did mark a new beginning for the government, that it perhaps was an indication that the government wanted to try to become more serious about making real the kind of democratic rhetoric that it’s always coming out with. But certainly, the — everything that’s happened over the past week seems to point in the opposite direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us a little more about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: Prime Minister Meles came to power after leading a long guerrilla struggle against his predecessor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was a brutal military dictator. He was, when he came to power, and still is, by most of the world, regarded as one of the most progressive leaders on the African continent. He has become the most prominent face of the United Kingdom’s Commission for Africa, which is trying to advance a bold new agenda for development on the African continent. His country also has benefited from enormous amounts of international aid and relatively little in the way of international criticism and scrutiny, largely because of Prime Minister Meles’s reputation. It seems as though he may have done a lot to tarnish that reputation over the course of the past week, but to be honest, the international community’s relationship with his government has always been characterized by a lack of meaningful criticism, and it remains to be seen whether anything is going to change in the long term because of all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: The opposition leader, Hailu Shawel, who was released from house arrest, who is he?

CHRIS ALBIN-LACKEY: The opposition coalition, the C.U.D., represents primarily the Amhara ethnic group in Ethiopia, which up until the current government came to power has been dominant in Ethiopia for centuries. And the emergence of this coalition signifies a resurgence of Amhara nationalism in Ethiopian politics. What’s worrying about the political picture now is that many of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups continue to remain without a voice in the political system, and if these elections are really to be meaningful in the long term, the government is going to have to continue to open up the political space to other voices.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Chris Albin-Lackey, researcher at the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. Spent a month in Ethiopia, leading up to the parliamentary elections.

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