Arguably, Ethiopia’s nation building course is far from over. Many agree it is in fact far from being on the right track. But inarguably Ethiopia is a state – a state that has its own constitution with a clearly marked distinction between the executive, the judiciary and the legislative; a state that is playing international and regional roles of its own creed and capacity; a state that is signatory to numerous international conventions ranging from protecting individual liberty to its environment.
But if one goes by the country’s recent crackdown against journalists, bloggers, opposition party members and Muslim protestors, it is compellingly easy (and tempting) to question whether the country’s security apparatus is acting as if this is a failed state and getting along with it.
Following the arrest last April of six bloggers and three journalists by the city police and members of the country’s intelligence under questionable circumstances, the pre-trial procedures that trailed the arrest showed that the country’s legal instruments and its obligations to international rights norms such as the prohibition on arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to know the reasons for arrest, the right to legal counsel, the right to a prompt appearance before a judge to challenge the lawfulness of arrest and detention, the prohibition of torture and the right to humane conditions during pre-trial detention, as well as the prohibition on incommunicado detention have all been brutally violated by the state’s own security apparatus, the police being at the forefront of it.
Under all circumstances every functioning state has the right to detain anyone that it deems possesses a threat to its people and national security. But every state, except for a failed one and a state ruled by absolute tyranny, which Ethiopia claims to be neither, has the obligation to observe the right to a fair trial of its detainees; to obey that an elementary norm of its own legal instruments and international human rights law that it’s a signatory to are properly deployed.
Not only has Ethiopia its own constitution, but it’s a signatory to Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides everyone to “be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”
Ethiopia has also ratified Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and International Convention on Civil & Political Rights among other treaties. Most importantly though Ethiopia has a legal framework that guarantees all international agreements that it ratified to be the integral part of the law of the land. That means, as a functioning state, Ethiopia should not only abide by its own constitution, but has international obligations to respect & protect the fundamental rights of individuals stipulated under these treaties.
Needless to say, the single most important criterion in evaluating the fairness of a trial in a functioning state is its adherence to the principle of equality of arms between the defense and the prosecution. But to the dismay of many including this magazine, the ongoing trial of the nine individuals who were held without charges for nearly three months, and were kept most of that time incommunicado during the pre-trial proceedings, show this norm being repeatedly violated by the country’s security apparatus with the help of the judiciary.
The last pre-trial hearing was marred by irregularities as the police denied its suspects from appearing at the court, hence violating their right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. The bench hearing the case has also been changed without the knowledge of defendants and that of their lawyer, which in one way or another will affect the outcome of the hearing ahead of us.
Perhaps the most alarming act of the police, however, is an act that characteristically belongs to a failed state: the act of obtaining confessions from the suspects under duress, as was told by the detainees themselves. The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia under article 19(5) guarantees that everyone “shall not” be compelled to make confessions or admission which could be used as evidence against them. Simply put, statements obtained under coercion are automatically inadmissible at the court of law.
Furthermore, Article 27(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code says any person summoned in accordance with the law should not be compelled to answer and will be informed that he/she has the right not to answer and that any statement he/she makes may be used as evidence against him/her. In the case for the nine suspects, we have seen that their rights has been violated when the police compelled them to answer & sign on documents that is intended to be used against them. The first trial in which the suspects were formally charged with terrorism in the second week of July clearly showed us that the prosecutors intended to use the self-incriminating documents signed by the suspects under circumstances we all prefer to avoid thinking as evidences against them. The constitutionally guaranteed presumption of innocence until proven guilty is also continued to be trashed by the police, the state media, the system’s sympathizers and government officials including the country’s Prime Minister, who continue referring to the suspects as having established links with outlawed terrorist organizations.
As many confirm this is perhaps the most publicized case, but certainly not the only case to rob Ethiopia’s judiciary of its constitutionally guaranteed independence.
Unless it’s an implicit part of the trick, it is long overdue the government in Ethiopia brings an end to the contemptible treatment by its security apparatus of the country’s established rule of law. For what it’s worth Ethiopia is a state, not a failed state and it needs to act accordingly.