Ethiopia’s Torture Problem and the Court of Public Opinion
Ethiopia’s state broadcaster EBC aired a documentary this week, detailing numerous horrendous acts of torture carried out by security services in recent years. Many Ethiopians were shocked and outraged.
These allegations are not new. Human rights groups have documented extensive torture in detention for many years. What has changed is that torture is now spoken about openly on state television and by the government after years of denial that torture even existed. This a refreshing change.
The airing of Tuesday’s torture documentary came several weeks after another documentary appeared on state television describing corruption involving state-owned Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC). Days earlier, several former high-ranking officials and employees of METEC were arrested and accused of corruption or gross human rights abuses. They have not yet been charged.
While this may signal a new commitment to justice, the government should avoid the past practice of using these documentaries to undermine defendants’ right to a fair trial by mobilizing the public to support a judiciary that was far from independent of state control. This long-standing tactic was used ahead of arrests or trials of Muslim protest leaders, journalists, and others who were targeted for peaceful activities.
Human Rights Watch and others have continually stressed the importance of accountability and justice as Ethiopia comes to grips with its repressive past. But for recent accountability efforts to be meaningful, due process rights must be respected and trials not turned into politicized shows targeting those seen to be opposed to the government and its policies, as trials in the past have often been.
The only way for victims to see justice done is through fair trials where victims can describe their ordeals, defendants are forced to answer to allegations, and decisions are arrived at based on evidence and in accordance with the law, free from political interference. This would send an important message to other past, present, and would-be abusers, including those currently in government, that torture and other abuses will no longer be tolerated. Meaningful accountability and justice, in parallel with reconciliation efforts, are critical for Ethiopia to move forward and come to terms with the abusive past.