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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Ethiopia: Human Rights Alert

Ethiopia: Human Rights Alert
Date distributed (ymd): 010516
Document reposted by APIC

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+


This posting contains three documents concerning the recent arrests of human rights leaders Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Behanu Nega in Ethiopia and related repression of university students and other critics of the regime. The first two are statements from the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and from Human Rights Watch, both dated May 9. The third a letter from the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS)

More recent reports say that Prof. Mesfin, the founder of the rights council who is 71 years old, is on a hunger strike, and that his health is weak. For an on-line petition organized by Ethiopian Scholars Network, see:
For recent news, see
and The Addis Tribune

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Ethiopian Human Rights Council
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Call for the Immediate Release of Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega

Special Report No. 43/2001 9 May 2001

EHRCO has an observer status in the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, is a member of World Organization Against Torture and is also a corresponding member of the International Federation of Human Rights.

Contact: 2432 Addis Abeba, ETHIOPIA
Tel: (00251 1) 51 44 89, 51 77 04
Telefax: (00251 1) 51 45 39

Since the time of its establishment, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) has been striving to the best of its ability for the establishment of a democratic system, the respect of human rights, the prevalence of the rule of law and the exercise of due process in Ethiopia. In addition to the monitoring of human rights violations, EHRCO has been providing civic education to various members of the public, using such fora as seminars, workshops and panel discussions, to enhance awareness about human rights, democracy and the rule of law. EHRCO has been carrying out these activities as per its mandate in its constitution, especially as provided in its sub-article 4.2.4, which clearly states one of its tasks as being: "to organise seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and lectures in order to promote democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law".

It was on the bases of this mandate and its civic objectives that EHRCO organized a panel discussion on the topic of "human rights, the nature of a university, and academic freedom" for Addis Ababa University students. The topic was chosen by and the panel discussion was organized at the request of the former University Students Council, made in their letter of 6 February 2001.

However, due to a number of logistical problems, the discussion was delayed until 8th April 2001 and held at the hall of the National Lottery. The two panelists at this day-long panel discussion were Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, who dealt with the principles of human rights and the nature of a university, and Dr. Berhanu Nega, who spoke on the principles of academic freedom within a university. As EHRCO had repeatedly reported to the public, the discussion was held peacefully and the issues of democratic rights and academic freedom were discussed frankly, but responsibly.

None of the speakers had said or done anything that could be construed as instigating the students to go on strike. That the panel discussion was held just one day before the university students met on campus and put forward their demands for the respect of their democratic rights and the exercise of academic freedom was a sheer coincidence since EHRCO did not have prior knowledge that the students would put to the government such demands, or that the subsequent class boycott would later be followed by the riot in Addis Ababa.

However, following the riot in some parts of the city, various government officials have publicly been trying to put the blame for the riot on the opposition political parties and "some so-called human rights organizations". Despite the fact that the panelists dealt with a topic that was within the legitimate mandate of EHRCO's civic responsibilities, and in spite of the fact that the speakers, as usual in such cases, did not in any sense deviate from the panel discussion's objective of educating the students on fundamental democratic principles and universal human rights, the Federal Police arrested Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega in the morning of 8th May 2001, the former from his home and the latter from his office, claiming that it had evidence "they had incited the students to riot".

According to the statement of the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Federal Investigation Coordination Bureau, the two individuals were put in detention pending further investigation (Addis Zemen, 9th May 2001). EHRCO has received information that indicates that the detainees were being held at the Central Investigation Bureau's prison. Eye witnesses have verified that the home of Prof. Mesfin and the office of Dr. Berhanu at the headquarters of the Ethiopian Economics Association are being guarded by armed policemen.

The head office of EHRCO, too, has been put under police guard since 11.45 a.m. on the day of the arrest of the two people. The police are restricting everyone's movement in and out of these premises. Not only this, in the morning of 8th May, every activity of EHRCO's staff even within their offices was being closely checked by the security men, incoming calls monitored and outgoing calls restricted, the dispatch of documents and/or materials into and out of the office prohibited; the staff were frisked when they entered and left the office. From 4.00 p.m. on 8th May up to the time of issuing this Special Report, the staff were being prevented from entering their office by the policemen posted at the office, who have also been guarding it the whole night and thereafter. Under these restrictions, therefore, EHRCO was effectively being prevented from conducting its normal business within its head office.

To date, all of EHRCO's activities have been legal, transparent, and peaceful. The panelists discussions on 8th April were also legitimate, constitutional and peaceful. Not only this, the two panelists were respectable citizens who have been providing commendable public services. Prof. Mesfin, a prominent founder of EHRCO, had been serving as the Council's Chairman from the time of its founding until a couple of years ago. He is still an active member of the Executive Committee. Dr. Berhanu, who was a former chairman of the Ethiopian Economics Association, is currently the Director of the Ethiopian Economic Research Institute. These are not the type of people who would be engaged in instigation of riots. The government, therefore, has no legal or moral ground whatsoever either to detain the two intellectuals or to impose restrictions on the normal activities at its head office.

Consequently, EHRCO strongly urges the Ethiopian government to:

  • respect their right to bail and immediately release Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega;
  • give their families and friends immediate access to the two detainees while they are in police custody;
  • allow representatives of the International Red Cross Committee and other international humanitarian organizations to have immediate access to the two detainees and to closely monitor their well-being;
  • stop the harassment of EHRCO's staff and lift the illegal restrictions imposed on the normal conduct of its business at its head office;

EHRCO also calls on the Ethiopian public, private individuals, human rights organizations, international agencies and governments committed to the establishment of a democratic order in Ethiopia to use their influence and press the Ethiopian government to:

  • release without further delay Prof. Mesfin W/Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega;
  • ensure the well-being of the two detainees;
  • remove all the illegal restrictions on the legal and legitimate operations of EHRCO.

Copy: H. E. Dr. Negaso Gidada, President of FDRE; H. E. Ato Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of FDRE; House of Peoples' Representatives; House of Federation; H. E. Ato Woredewold Wolde, Minister of Justice; H.E. Ato Kemal Bedri, President of Federal Supreme Court; H. E. Ato Kinfe Gebre Medhin, Head, National Security, Immigration and Refugees Affairs Authority

Government Attacks Universities, Civil Society

Human Rights Watch (New York)


May 9, 2001

For More Information, Please Contact: In New York, Saman Zia-Zarifi: +1-212- 216-1213 SulimanAli Baldo: +1-212-216-1297 In London, Bronwen Manby: +44-207- 713-1995

New York

Ethiopian security forces have used excessive force in dealing with student protests and are using the protests as an excuse for cracking down on all government critics, Human Rights Watch charged today.

Attacks by security forces on Addis Ababa University, in Ethiopia's capital, have led to forty-one deaths, hundreds of injuries, and the detention of over two thousand students and scores of government critics since April 17.

"The government's heavy-handed tactics have enflamed what began as a peaceful local student protest into a violent national crisis," said Saman Zia-Zarifi, Human Rights Watch's Academic Freedom Director.

"The attacks on academic freedom have now degenerated into a wholesale assault on civil society in Ethiopia."

On the morning of May 8, armed security forces arrested Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam and Berhanu Nega, both prominent academics and human rights activists. Prof. Mesfin, who was fired from his teaching position in 1991, was a founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a monitoring organization. His detention follows that of several dozen members of civil and political groups critical of the Ethiopian government. Authorities claim these opposition figures instigated the recent student protests.

However, eyewitness testimony and information from local sources indicate that Ethiopian authorities responded with brutal violence to students demanding greater academic freedom, and are now using the ensuing crisis to justify a general crackdown on figures critical of the government.

Security forces attacked students at Addis Ababa University on April 11, injuring more than fifty students. A week later, at least forty people were killed during raids at the university by heavily armed members of the Special Forces branch of the security forces. Eyewitnesses claim that the police raid on students escalated into widespread riots around Addis Ababa as protesters disaffected with government policies joined the clashes in support of the students.

According to eyewitnesses, security forces fired live ammunition at protesters. Police reports stated that thirty-one people were killed in the raids, while hospital sources put the number of dead as at least forty-one. Some fifty-five people were hospitalized as a result of injuries sustained during the clashes. Witnesses state that the riot police beat civilians with batons though they offered no resistance, and then turned on bystanders, including women and children. Students were dragged out of local churches and mosques, where they had sought refuge, and taken into detention.

More than two thousand students were detained during these raids. Most were released a few days later, but several who were suspected of being members of the university student council are still held incommunicado. The security forces have also rounded up nearly 150 political activists and journalists critical of the government, many of whom are being held without any information as to their whereabouts.

According to the testimony of newly released student detainees, they were taken to the Sendafa police training college outside Addis Ababa, where they received only bread and water once a day. Students were disciplined by being forced to run barefoot on stony ground, and were denied medical care or access to their families and lawyers. As a condition of release and readmission to the university, students said they were forced to sign a form admitting that they had participated in an illegal action and were responsible for the violence.

Police again raided the Addis Ababa University campus on April 30, arresting several students suspected of playing leadership roles in the protests. Despite the police action, and contrary to the government's public statements, Addis Ababa University remains under a student boycott in support of the detained students. The unrest has spread to at least ten other universities and scores of high schools around the country, including Alemaya University of Agriculture and Bahir-Dar Polytechnic Institute.

Academics interviewed by telephone by Human Rights Watch claim that security forces are blocking students at Addis Ababa from traveling to their home towns outside of the capital in order to prevent contact between protesters and sympathetic student groups around the country.

Background At the root of the student protests are demands for greater academic freedom. Student groups at Addis Ababa University were engaged in ongoing negotiations with Minister of Education Genet Zewde over requests for decreased government controls over the campus. The students' main demands were permission to republish a banned student magazine, dismissal of two university administrators closely affiliated with the government, and removal of security troops stationed inside the campus.

While the government initially conceded the first two demands, it did not commit to a schedule for removing security forces from the universities. When students continued to press their demands, the minister of education issued an ultimatum threatening students who did not return to classes with police force. The security forces' efforts to enforce the ultimatum, coming on the heels of continuing police use of violence to quash student protests, set off the clashes on April 17 and 18 at Addis Ababa University and the chain of events leading to the current crisis.

The Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom program works with a committee prominent academic leaders and scholars, including the current and past presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University and more than a dozen other universities in the United States, as well as internationally prominent academics. Human Rights Watch urged the Ethiopian government to promptly investigate the conduct of security forces in causing the deaths during raids at Addis Ababa University; to release all students, government critics and human rights monitors still in detention, or promptly allow them the opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a proper court of law; and to honor academic freedom by allowing free expression at the universities.

Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS)

May 11, 2001

Dear ACAS members and friends,

As many of you know, over the course of the last two months attacks by the Ethiopian government on students, scholars, and civil society activists have been accelerating. In addition we have been receving calls for assistance from Ethiopian colleagues.

While we had hoped that the reopening of Addis Ababa university signalled a change for the better, the arrest this week of prominent academics and human rights scholars, among other similar measures, indicates otherwise.

ACAS has thus written an appeal to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles asking for him to reverse course, and assure once again free speech and academic freedom. This letter is immediately below.

We would ask you to act as well, writing to:

Prime Minister Meles: Fax: 251-1-55-2020

US Secretary of State Colin Powell: Fax: (202) 261-8577 Email:

Print addresses are on our letter below as well.

We thank you for your assistance.


Bill Martin, Merle Bowen Co-Chairs

May 11, 2001

His Excellency Meles Zenawi, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Via Fax: 2511-55-20-20

Dear Prime Minister Meles,

On behalf of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS), a national organization of progressive scholars actively engaged with Africa, we write to urge that you take immediate steps to release detained students and scholars, and allow university communities to return to their work unhindered by state repression.

ACAS and its members have a long history of respect and support for Ethiopian struggles for freedom; indeed Ethiopia has often been a source of inspiration for Americans. We are thus particularly disturbed by what can only be seen as a determined campaign to suppress free speech and academic freedom. Whatever the events and persons involved in the April disturbances in Addis Ababa, the subsequent attack on Addis Ababa University and other institutions of higher education shocked our members and many in the international academic community. The reports of subsequent summary arrests and the detention of thousands of students and scholars--without charges or trial--is of especially grave concern. The even more recent arrest of Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, the founding member of Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and Dr. Berhanu Nega, a prominent economist at Addis Ababa University, signals we fear an unrelenting campaign to eliminate all dissent, well beyond even the repression of those who work within the fields of higher education.

We thus urge you to use your office to ensure the immediate release of all detained students, scholars, and related persons--or if evidence exists, their charge in public court. The continuation of sweeping arrests and detention without charges, the closure of universities and colleges, and the imposition of loyalty oaths as a condition of study and scholarship, gravely threatens Ethiopia's proud intellectual heritage, its continuation, and progressive relations between Ethiopia and the United States. We hope continuing repression can be reversed, and return Ethiopia to us as a signal beacon of the struggle for freedom for both Africa and America.


Merle Bowen, Co-Chair
William G. Martin, Co-Chair

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Fax: (202) 261-8577

Ambassador Berhane Gebre-Christos
Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States
Embassy of Ethiopia
3506 International Drive, NW
Washington DC 20008
Fax (202) 686-9551

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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