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It is very simple: respect the constitution

From the print edition

Once again Ethiopia is in the headlines.It is not for its dazzling double digit economic growth, nor for its once familiar tale of famine and poverty that it tries so hard to leave behind, or not even for two consecutive mega state visits by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang; but for its inexplicable and heavy-handed onslaught against three independent journalists and a group of six bloggers, who were detained from their homes on Friday April 25th and Saturday April 26th by plain-clothed security personnel.  

As the nauseating ritual of Ethiopian politics repeatedly proved itself in the past, this time too, the detainees are not ordinary youngsters. They include prominent journalist Tesfalem Wadyes, who was freelancing for the weekly English Fortune and this magazine, journalist Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, senior editor at an influential Amharic weekly magazine Addis Guday, and journalist Edom Kassaye, a freelancer and an active member of the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association (EEJA) and a close associate of Zone9 bloggers, who make up the other six.  They are: Zelalem Kibret, a lecturer at Ambo University, Atnaf Berhane, IT professional, Natnail Feleke, an employee of the Construction and Business Bank, Mahlet Fantahun, Data expert, Befekadu Hailu, an employee of St. Mary’s University College, and Abel Wabella, an engineer at Ethiopian Airlines. They came together to blog under the motto: “we blog because we care.”

This latest crackdown has seen Ethiopians, including die-hard cliques of the system, united in their despair for one defining reason: all the detainees are widely known to millions of Ethiopian social media users for their measured, disciplined and yet critical evaluation of the void in the system, which now mercilessly trapped them.    

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Mystifying to many is the fact that the arrest was preceded by a documentary aired on the state-monopolized national TV, which chronicled precedents of the “Color Revolution” throughout the world and how they were helplessly manipulated by undercover foreign agents who use local collaborators to incite violence. Predictably a court indictment filed by the police (on an unusual Sunday morning) requesting to remand the detainees for additional 10 and 11 days accuses them of working and collaborating with and receiving money from foreign organizations and using social media to incite violence and social unrest. This is a bone-chilling reminder of the filthy tricks favored by tyrant states in the past, from Adolf Hitler’s Germany to Josip Broz Tito’s Albania, and from Mao Zedong’s China to Joseph Stalin’s Russia. 

Perhaps though, the grave effect of this arrest comes in the form that it exposes the gradual apathy by the security apparatus for the rule of law; the priceless rule of law that the ruling elites are keen to tell us to enjoy thanks to the sacrifices they had paid for it.

At first glance, this act by the police of picking individuals and locking them away from the outside world for as long as it pleases them implies something bigger than a single incident of the sort this one is: it implies a troubling reality that the police know they can simply get away with it. They even know that they can get away with manipulating the judiciary to the point of having a judge come to preside over their request of remand on a Sunday morning. But dig dipper and you will find the biggest picture yet of why this is so, and what serves as a breeding ground for these sorts of thuggish police behavior to flourish: it is a grand and repeated miscarriage of justice at national level.

Let’s ignore, just for now, the unknown circumstances in which many of the detainees were hand-picked at night by plain-clothed security officers – we still don’t know whether or not the detainees were served with arrest and search warrants in accordance with the law – and fast forward to the event that followed. It may not help the case to scream that this country has a constitution that guarantees decent treatment of detainees under police custody. But we will scream all the same: it is called Article 21 of the constitution and it provides persons in custody to have the right to treatment that respects their human dignity. It also guarantees them to have the right not to be held incommunicado and be visited by their spouses or partners, close relatives, friends, and religious councilors. But that didn’t happen by the time this magazine went to the print as none of our staffs were able to establish a contact with Tsefalem Waldyes, one of our finest freelancers, five days after his arrest along with the others.   

Ironically, one of the four successful online campaigns organized by members of Zone9 bloggers was the hit campaign called “Respect the Constitution,” which was conducted from Dec. 6th -8th 2012. It was a very simple demand directed at everyone who is Ethiopian, the police and politicians included. This magazine would like to repeat that call again: respect the constitution, it is not too complicated.

ED’s Note: all the detainees are still kept incommunicado


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