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Editorial: Controlling police excesses long overdue!

Much to the expectation of curious spectators of Ethiopia’s current political affairs, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) claimed a 100% win in the last general election held on May 24th 2015. When seen against the party’s own record since the first national election in 1995; the thinning global trend of an electoral tale of a 100% wins; and for lack of a better word, the current victory to the ruling EPRDF can safely be termed as nothing but “historic”.

It’s an often cited, if not acted up on, reality that the elections have happened in a foreboding environment that challenged not only opposition politicians, independent civil society representatives and journalists but also the general public. This environment largely owes its existence and sustenance to state sponsored deliberate assault against the civic-political space seen particularly in the aftermath of the 2005 bloody election. Save from organizing the technicalities and logistics needed to hold the election, the political space in Ethiopia is far from tolerating a just electoral process that its citizens can safely use to alternate their choices. Nowhere is this obvious than the dazzling 100% win by the ruling EPRDF, which cemented its uncontested and absolute grip on power for another five long years.

Crimes gone unaccounted for
Since long the debates on the dynamics of Ethiopian politics have largely focused on the government’s role of systematically tightening free civic-political spaces that are crucial not only to hold free and fair elections but also in defining state-citizen relations. But less attention is being spared to an equally crippling environment: the mushrooming trend of police excesses and their unwavering loyalty to the politics of the day.

In the run-up to and after the election, reports of intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrests and killings of opposition party members in different parts of the country have been trickling at sporadic intervals. The Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (EFDUF), a.k.a. Medrek reported that police have detained 500 of its members from different polling stations in Oromia regional state. According to the latest report by Amnesty International, “forty-six people were beaten and injured by security officers while six people sustained gunshot injuries and two were shot and killed. Gidila Chemeda of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC/Medrek) was shot and killed by police in Western Shewa zone, Dima Kege Woreda, Gelam Gunge Kebele of the Oromia region.”

In the last week before the election, a group of senior opposition party members from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC/Medrek) were brutally attacked by members of the police during the last leg of their campaign in Bedele and Jima towns in western Ethiopia. As it happened, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was in the area inaugurating state funded projects and the police felt it was within the rule of law not to have opposition party members showing up simultaneously.

Two more mysterious killings of opposition party members in Amhara and Tigrai national regional states were also reported after the election. Twenty seven years old Samuel Aweke, a candidate with the Samayawi (Blue) party, was found murdered on June 15th in Debre Markos town of the Amhara national regional state, and Tadesse Abraha of the Arena/Medrek in Tigrai national regional state died of his injuries a short while after a group of three people attempted to strangle him.

In an attempt to distance itself from the killing of Samuel Aweke of the Blue party, the government released a statement claiming Samuel, a lawyer by profession, was killed following a personal altercation with his clients. This comes as a stark contrast to Samuel’s account on his personal Facebook page detailing the harassment he was sustaining from none other than security officers.
However, other than Samuel’s, the all too familiar response from the government regarding the rest of the accusations by opposition political parties is so far silence.


Controlling the excesses of the police
A visit to any of the courthouses where ongoing trials are happening against bloggers and journalists, opposition political party members, members of the Ethiopian Muslim Committee and the many others awaiting justice is a classical showcase of the excesses of the police over the rule of law. It is an ordinary event to see this section of the police repeatedly bypassing orders from the court of law to address complaints by detainees suffering from tortures or restrictions of visits by family members. The all too powerful members of the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission (EFPC) overbearingly trespass their legal boundaries to meddle in regional affairs; and ordinary Ethiopians’ face-to-face encounters with any police officer, be it in or around a courthouse or state organized public rallies, is often poisonous, if not fatal, and ends with arbitrary arrests of citizens.

With that in the backdrop, the debate on the force vs. service dilemma of the role of the police in Ethiopia is increasingly favoring the police’s role as a force loyal to the ruling party and not as independent law enforcement mechanism, as it should be. (Please read cover story).

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Putting an end to such police excesses is long overdue. The government in Ethiopia must adhere to the clear and indisputable role of the police as law enforcement apparatus and not as party loyal machine bent on extending a helping hand to prolong its reign in power. It is also equally important to recognize that when going astray the police, be it as an institution or individually, should be subject to accountability to the rule of law.

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