Ethiopia is a federal republic. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically based parties, controlled the government until December 2019 when the coalition dissolved and was replaced by the Prosperity Party. In the 2015 general elections, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front and affiliated parties won all 547 seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives (parliament) to remain in power for a fifth consecutive five-year term. In 2018 former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation to accelerate political reforms in response to demands from the country’s increasingly restive youth. Parliament then selected Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister to lead these reforms. Prime Minister Abiy leads the Prosperity Party.
National and regional police forces are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order, with the Ethiopian National Defense Force sometimes providing internal security support. The Ethiopian Federal Police report to the Ministry of Peace. The Ethiopian National Defense Force reports to the Ministry of National Defense. The regional governments (equivalent to a U.S. state) control regional security forces, which are independent from the federal government. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of all security forces committed some abuses.
Abiy’s assumption of office was followed by positive changes in the human rights climate. The government decriminalized political movements that in the past were accused of treason, invited opposition leaders to return and resume political activities, allowed peaceful rallies and demonstrations, enabled the formation and unfettered operation of political parties and media outlets, and carried out legislative reform of repressive laws. The opening of political space has also met with challenges. Reforms are taking place in an environment with weak institutions including in the security sector. Ethnic tensions increased, resulting in significant violence in some cases. Citizen-on-citizen violence caused the majority of human rights abuses.
On November 4, fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force resulted in protracted conflict in the northern Tigray Region and reports of serious and widespread abuses. As of the end of the year, there was very limited access to the majority of Tigray, except for the capital Mekele, resulting in a lack of reporting and making it difficult to ascertain the extent of human rights abuses and violations.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces and private entities; forced disappearances by unnamed armed groups; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing of civilians; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including harassment of journalists, and blocking of the internet and social media sites; interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial or ethnic minority groups; and existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct.
The government at times did not take steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses, resulting in impunity for abusers due to a lack of institutional capacity. The government took positive steps toward greater accountability under the Abiy administration to change the relationship between security forces and the public. In June the attorney general’s office and the government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigated Amnesty International’s allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. The administration also addressed past reported abuses such as restrictions on freedom of assembly, political prisoners, and interference with privacy. In late August the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and human rights nongovernmental organizations deployed investigators to 40 sites in Oromia Region to probe ethnic-based killings after the June 29 killing of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.
There were human rights abuses by paramilitary groups, rebel forces, and youth groups. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s preliminary assessment of the November 9 attack in Mai-Kadra in Tigray concluded that a Tigrayan youth group supported by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force killed approximately 600 persons. Amnesty International reported that the abuses were carried out by police special forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force. A local human rights group reported that on June 29 and 30, youth groups attacked the villages of Arsi and Bale Zones in Oromia. The federal police arrested 1,500 regional officials for participation in the violence or failing to prevent the violence following the death of Hachalu Hundessa. The Oromo Liberation Army-Shane, an armed separatist group with factions in western, central, and southern Oromia, killed civilians and government officials.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government and its representatives committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. There were cases identified by Amnesty International and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) where security forces used excessive force against civilians. Other reports were being investigated by international bodies. The federal police had an internal investigative unit that investigated cases of criminal acts perpetrated by police. The internal unit’s decisions regarding penalties against police were kept confidential.
The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) had a military police division with a military investigative unit that reported to the military attorney general’s office. The military police passed evidence from their investigations to the prosecutors and defense counsels. The ENDF attorney general directed the investigations and heard the cases in military court.
On January 19, a security official reportedly shot a 20-year-old man tending his store near Mugi, in western Oromia. On January 21, unidentified security officials rounded up five young men in a small town outside of Mugi, interrogated them in a private residence, and then shot and killed them, according to a local journalist. It is not clear which security service perpetrated these abuses.
On August 9, regional special forces clashed with protesters in Sodo in the Welayita Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region. Media reported the forces killed 17 citizens after youth groups blocked roads and burned tires in response to the arrest of 28 members of the zonal leadership, including Zonal Administrator Dagato Kumbe and members of the Welayita National Movement opposition party.
On August 27, the EHRC issued a press release declaring it had evidence that security forces killed protesters in Assasa, Sahshemene, Bale Robe, Ginir, Asebot, Chrio, and Awedaye. The EHRC called on the government to create an independent body to investigate.
On May 29, a member of a local militia in Mekele, capital of the Tigray Region, shot and killed a woman following a labor dispute concerning salary. Afterwards, the militiaman shot himself but survived.
On May 29, fighters of the former Oromo Liberation Army-Shane (OLA-Shane), an armed separatist group, with factions in western, central, and south Oromia, reportedly killed four civil servants and wounded three others in Wagari Buna locality in West Wellega Zone of Oromia Region. The team of civil servants was on route to Nejo town after delivering agricultural supplies to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz Region.
On November 9, Amnesty International reported an armed group killed a large number of civilians in the town of Mai-Kadra in western Tigray Region. The victims were reportedly largely to be non-Tigrayan seasonal laborers. The Amhara regional media agency reported there were approximately 500 victims. Although the identity of the attackers remained unconfirmed, witnesses stated forces associated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force committed the killings (See section 1.g., Respect for the Integrity of the Person–Abuses in Internal Conflict.).
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
In December 2019 approximately 17 university students were kidnapped by an armed group in western Oromia Region. The government charged 17 OLA-Shane individuals with terrorism charges for the abduction. The trial against the suspects continued as of December. At the end of the year, the status of the missing students remained unknown.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were reports that security officials tortured and otherwise abused detainees.
On May 29, Amnesty International released a report claiming that security forces carried out torture in OLA-Shane areas. The EHRC and the attorney general’s office reviewed these reports and concluded that the report was biased.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there is one open allegation, submitted in 2018, of sexual exploitation and abuse by an Ethiopian peacekeeper deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission in the region, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of October the United Nations had substantiated the allegation and repatriated the perpetrator, but the Ethiopian government had not provided information on accountability measures taken by year’s end.
Impunity remained a problem, although some measures were taken to hold security forces accountable for human rights abuses. Lack of transparency regarding those being charged and tried in courts of law made it difficult to determine if significant improvements were made.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. Problems included gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation, and medical care. Pretrial detention often occurred in police station detention facilities, where conditions varied widely and reports noted poor hygiene.
Physical Conditions: Severe overcrowding was common, especially in prison sleeping quarters. Prison cells were small and cramped. International organizations reported that it was common for cells to have small windows that allow only a little light into estimated 430-square-foot cells, one of which may hold as many as 38 cellmates. Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults. Prison officials generally separated male and female prisoners, although mixing occurred at some facilities.
The government budgeted approximately nine birr ($0.23) per prisoner per day for food, water, and health care, although this amount varied across the country. Many prisoners supplemented this allocation with daily food deliveries from family members or by purchasing food from local vendors. Reports noted officials prevented some prisoners from receiving food from their families, and some families did not know of their relatives’ locations. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional ones. Medical attention following physical abuse was insufficient in some cases.
Prisoners had only limited access to potable water. Water shortages caused unhygienic conditions, and most prisons lacked appropriate sanitary facilities. Many prisoners had serious health problems but received little or no treatment. There were reports prison officials denied some prisoners access to needed medical care.
The law prohibits detention in any facility other than an official detention center; however, local militias and other formal and informal law enforcement entities operated an unknown number of unofficial detention centers.
Approximately 9,500 persons in the Oromo Region were arrested for ethnically related violence and destruction of property after the death of Hundessa (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups). Regional authorities later reported that approximately one-half of those arrested were released. On September 26, the Oromia regional government reported that 5,728 persons were charged in connection with the violence. The excessive crowding in detention facilities raised concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. The Prison Commission responded by using public facilities such as schools as makeshift prisons to improve prison-inmate distancing.
Administration: There were reports that prisoners were mistreated by prison guards and did not have access to prison administrators or ombudspersons to register their complaints. Legal aid clinics operated in some prisons. At the regional level, these clinics had good working relations with judicial, prison, and other government officials. Prison officials allowed some detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, but courts sometimes declined to hear such complaints.
The law generally provides for visitor access to prisoners. Authorities, however, denied some indicted defendants visits with their lawyers. In some cases police did not allow pretrial detainees to have access to visitors, including family members and legal counsel. Prison regulations stipulate that lawyers representing persons charged with terrorism offenses may visit only one client per day, and only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Authorities denied family members’ access to persons charged with terrorist activity.
Officials permitted religious observance by prisoners, but this varied by prison and even by section within a prison. There were allegations authorities denied detainees adequate locations in which to pray.
Independent Monitoring: During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross visited 51,000 prisoners throughout the country as part of its normal activities.
Regional authorities allowed government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives to meet with prisoners without third parties present. The EHRC monitored federal and regional detention centers, and interviewed prison officials and prisoners. The NGO Justice for All-Prison Fellowship Ethiopia had access to multiple prison and detention facilities around the country.
The EHRC and the attorney general’s office checked on the welfare of high-level political prisoners arrested for possible involvement in organizing violence following the killing of the popular singer Hachalu Hundessa. During the week of July 12, the EHRC twice visited high-level prisoners such as Jawar Mohamed, Eskinder Nega, and Bekele Gerba. The independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported that the detainees were in good health, were visited by family members, and were in touch with lawyers defending their cases.
Improvements: On February 17, the government published the Federal Prison Proclamation that makes the Federal Prisons Commission an independent body that reports to the attorney general’s office; requires that all prisoners be treated with human dignity and are given education and technical training to assist with rehabilitation; stipulates that prisoners are to be provided clothing and three meals per day; and are given free medical care (including psychiatric care) on premises. The Federal Prison Commission was to be monitored and supervised by the Committee of Community Leaders (comprising religious, cultural, and human rights leaders), the EHRC, and the parliament. The act also stipulates that prisoners “shall have an accommodation that preserves his human rights, dignity, security, and health during his stay in prison.” The proclamation introduced categorization and separation of prisoners according to age, gender, and risk level.
The legislation led to reforms within the prison system. The Prisons Commission had an independent budget and chain of command from other ministries, and the commission reported directly to parliament. The commission launched its own training centers, educational programs, and driving schools to provide inmates with basic skills to reduce recidivism. The commission began building its own hospital system for cost savings and to decrease dependency on local community hospitals.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and federal law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these requirements.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution and law require detainees to appear in court and face charges within 48 hours of arrest or as soon thereafter as local circumstances and communications permit. Travel time to the court is not included in this 48-hour period. With a warrant, authorities may detain persons suspected of serious offenses for 14 days without charge. The courts increasingly pushed authorities to present evidence or provide clear justifications within 14 days or release the detainee. Courts also demanded to see police investigative files in order to assess police requests for additional time.
On April 6, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) replaced an antiterrorism law that permitted arbitrary arrests. The ATP provides that a suspect or defendant accused under the provisions of the ATP is to be “protected in accordance with [the] constitution, international agreements [ratified by the government] and other laws of the country concerning rights and conditions of suspected or accused persons.” The ATP prohibits warrantless searches and interception of private communications without a warrant or court order. It gives leasing and rental business owners up to 72 hours to provide the identities of foreigners (nonresidents) to police, significantly narrowing the scope of the law by excluding residents, and reduces the penalties for noncompliance. The ATP ends lengthy detention without a court appearance and gives the courts authority to prioritize any terrorism-related arrests.
A functioning bail system was in place. Bail was not available for persons charged with murder, treason, or corruption. In other cases the courts set bail between 500 and 10,000 birr ($13 and $250), amounts that few citizens could afford. The government provided public defenders for detainees unable to afford private legal counsel, but defendants received these services only when their cases went to trial and not during the pretrial phases. In some cases a single defense counsel represented multiple defendants (coaccused) in a single case.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of arbitrary arrest by security forces.
On May 13, an estimated 1,600 persons were arrested in Addis Ababa for “violating the state of emergency” and not wearing face masks. The EHRC urged police to stop arbitrary arrest of individuals for not wearing face masks and declared that the tactics were needless. All the detained were released within 72 hours (see section 1.c.).
Pretrial Detention: The percentage of the inmate population in pretrial detention and average length of time held was not available. Lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, and staffing shortages contributed to frequent trial delays, in some cases lasting years.
Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: During the year no cases were brought to the courts by individuals claiming unlawful detention. The law does not provide compensation for unlawfully detained persons.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, criminal courts remained weak and overburdened.
Under the constitution, accused persons have the right to a fair, public trial without undue delay, a presumption of innocence, legal counsel of their choice, appeal, the right not to self-incriminate, the right to present witnesses and evidence in their defense, and the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The law requires officials to inform detainees of the nature of their arrest within a specific period time, which varies based on the severity of the allegation. The law requires that if necessary, translation services are provided in a language defendants understand. The federal courts had staff working as interpreters for major local languages and are required to hire interpreters for defendants that speak other languages.
In August the EHRC reported that the regional courts performed well in presuming innocence of detainees. The human rights body also stated that courts made sure that detainees’ families were informed of detentions.
The federal Public Defender’s Office provided legal counsel to indigent defendants, but the scope and quality of service were inadequate due to a shortage of attorneys. A public defender often handled more than 100 cases and might represent multiple defendants in the same criminal case. Numerous free legal-aid clinics, primarily based at universities, also provided legal services. In certain areas of the country, the law allows volunteers such as law students and professors to represent clients in court on a pro bono basis. There is a lack of a strong local bar association or other standardized criminal defense representation.
The constitution recognizes both religious and traditional courts. Many rural citizens had little access to formal judicial systems and relied on traditional mechanisms for resolving conflict. By law all parties to a dispute must agree to use a traditional or religious court before such a court may hear a case, and either party may appeal to a regular court at any time. Sharia (Islamic law) courts may hear religious and family cases involving Muslims if both parties agree before the start of the formal legal process to use the sharia court. Sharia courts received some funding from the government. Sharia courts adjudicated a majority of cases in the Somali and Afar regions, which are predominantly Muslim. Other traditional systems of justice, such as councils of elders, functioned predominantly in rural areas. Women often believed they lacked access to free and fair hearings in the traditional court system because local custom excluded them from participation in councils of elders and due to persistent gender discrimination.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were multiple detentions of political leaders who were released or sentenced based on criminal acts. Following the June 30 violence caused by the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, there were approximately 40 arrests of political leaders and their followers. In July the highest profile leaders were visited in jail by the attorney general’s office and the EHRC at least three times. These opposition leaders were provided the same protections as other detainees. Several opposition leaders who were arrested following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa are still in detention awaiting trial.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law provides citizens the right to appeal in civil court, including in cases with human rights abuses. For rights abuses where a government agency is the accused perpetrator, the victim initiates the process by filing a complaint at the EHRC. The EHRC investigates and makes recommendations to the concerned government agency.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
The government engaged in offensive operations against the armed separatist group OLA-Shane in western, northern, and southeastern Oromia. The government had military-led command posts in the affected areas that coordinated all security operations. Command posts are led by the ENDF but are supported by regional special forces, regional police, and regional militias.
On November 4, fighting between the ENDF and the Tigray Special Forces resulted in protracted conflict in the northern region of Tigray. The fighting affected the entire region. As of the end of the year, there was very limited access to Tigray, except for the capital Mekele, resulting in a lack of reporting and making it difficult to ascertain the extent of abuses. There were numerous reports of looting and destruction of infrastructure in Tigray, including in refugee camps. There were reports that government security forces, security forces from neighboring regions, the Eritrean military, private militias, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force all committed human rights violations and abuses, including extrajudicial killings, sexual assaults, forced displacement of civilian populations, and torture. There are reports that government security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions. International organizations, including the United Nations reported that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding and they prepared to assist with basic services, food, and medical supplies.
Killings: Residents of Qellem Wellega Zone in Oromia told media that government security forces killed seven civilians.
The Oromia Region’s Security Bureau reported that OLA-Shane fighters killed more than 770 individuals, wounded more than 1,300, and abducted 72 persons.
On November 1, suspected OLA-Shane fighters killed at least 54 ethic Amhara residents of Gawa Qanqa in West Wellega Zone, according to Amnesty International. Witnesses reported that men, women, and children were killed, and property was looted and burned.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption. The government did not implement the law effectively or comprehensively. The government enacted new policies to hold government officials more accountable. There were isolated reports of government corruption. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
On August 18, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Ethiopian Financial Intelligence Center signed a Memorandum of Understanding to increase coordination by allowing the two agencies to better identify money laundering, terrorism financing, and other financial crimes that support corruption.
On April 7, the country enacted the 2020 Federal Administrative Procedure Proclamation (APP). This is the country’s first law to allow ordinary citizens to appeal to the federal courts to review the legality of federal agency actions, decisions, and rules. The APP is intended to advance federal agencies’ transparency and accountability by allowing citizens seeking administrative redress to file suits in federal courts against federal agencies if those agencies fail in their core missions. Citizens may seek monetary compensation in addition to asking agencies to comply with the law.
Corruption: In late September federal police arrested Ministry of Education officials Mekonnen Addis, Eshetu Asfaw, Taye Mengistu, and Nigusse Beyene for corrupt procurement resulting in a loss of 280 million birr ($7 million) and the production of books not meeting the requirements of the bidding contract. Police confiscated foreign and local currency from the houses of these four members of the bidding committee. Police also blocked bank accounts of the relatives of the four individuals.
The government also continued to prosecute the former director general of the state-owned Metal and Engineering Corporation, Kinfe Dagnew, who was arrested in 2018. Prosecutors and investigators uncovered suspicious procurement practices involving more than 80 billion birr ($2 billion). In January 2019 Kinfe was charged with four counts of corruption at the Lideta High Court in Addis Ababa. The trial continued at year’s end.
Financial Disclosure: The country’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission strengthened their anticorruption policies and enforcement by creating a process for civil servants to report their assets. Before August the commission focused its training on top officials and expanded its training to make staff familiar with the reporting guidelines. By August 24, the majority of legislators registered and declared their assets to the commission. On August 28, the commission sent police a list of 184 federal and Addis Ababa government officials who failed to register their assets and who could face criminal charges.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
According to the 2007 census, the country had more than 80 ethnic groups, of which the Oromo, at approximately 34 percent of the population, is the largest. An updated census is controversial and was slated for 2019 but was postponed until further notice. The federal system and constitution define political boundaries based on ethnic considerations, but the documents themselves are not drawn along such boundaries. Most political parties were primarily ethnically based, although the ruling party and one of the largest opposition parties were not organized along ethnic lines.
There were several cases of societal violence affecting members of national, racial, or ethnic minorities or groups. In July unidentified gunmen attacked a village in Guba District, Metekel Zone of Benishangul Gumuz Region, killing 14 ethnic Amharans, according to a statement issued by the Amhara Region. An official within Amhara Region reported that six individuals suffered injuries in this “premeditated attack aimed at triggering ethnic conflict.” This conflict was followed on August 6, 7, and 13 by attacks on three different areas in Metekel Zone. The violence included livestock raids, ambushes of travelers on roads, attacks, and robberies of churches, resulting in an estimated 160 deaths. National defense forces were called to restore calm.
On June 30, Oromo youths in Harar and parts of Oromia Region went door-to-door and attacked non-Oromos and destroyed their property following the killing of the prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. Most of the violence occurred from June 30 to July 6. The death of Hundessa was followed by violent protests throughout Oromia Region resulting in more than 170 deaths and millions of dollars of property destruction. Federal and regional authorities pursued investigations against 5,728 detainees whom authorities accused of participating in this violence. Police also arrested local officials and security personnel for complicity. (See section 1.a., Respect for the Integrity of the Person–Arbitrary Deprivation of Life.)
As tensions mounted between the national government and the Tigrayan regional government, there were multiple reports of Tigrayan security officials, public officials, and other ethnic Tigrayans who were arrested, detained, or asked to step down or take a leave of absence from their official positions. On November 24 and December 25, the EHRC and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council released assessments describing targeted ethnic killings that began November 9 in Mai-Kadra and surrounding towns. Prior to the November 9 attack, Tigrayan militias and regional security services reportedly asked for the identification documents of Amharans before targeting them. The attack resulted in approximately 600-1,200 deaths, including bodies discovered in mass graves near Abune Aregwai Church, and the destruction of private property.