Embarrassed again? Further notes on the Trial
By Donald Levin October 11, 2006
Almost duped once
In 1992 I joined dozens of Ethiopia’s friends to monitor the “first democratic election” in the history of Ethiopia. Never mind that democratic elections for Parliament had been held in 1957; in 1963; and in 1967. (In 1967, incidentally, one Ato Zenawi of Adwa and others were disputing the ballot counts in their local election.).
No matter. Full of good will, we Americans and Europeans had come to celebrate a new era of political democracy following the Derg dictatorship. We were excited that the new regime wanted to demonstrate commitment to an open political process and a pluralistic democracy, and honored to be part of it. My fellow monitors included a Congressman Donald Payne of new Jersey and Professor Edmond Keller of UCLA. My monitoring companion was first political officer at the Russian Embassy-a pairing unthinkable only a few year before
On arrival I told the taxi driver that I had come to support Ethiopia’s new experiment in democracy. All he said was: “Wushet Demokrasee.” His phrase became a logo for what my companions and I experienced during our brief tour. We found opposition candidates and parties hamstrung by restrictions. Opposition candidates in Amhara districts were reportedly harassed. I was there when the Government kept journalists from covering a new conference of an independent candidate. Together with the American Human Rights officer at the time, I visited a prison where several would-be OLF candidates had been locked up for no apparent good reason. I was there when Profesor Keller was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours simply because as an election observer he had visited an OLF rally. I went to Aliu Amba where the TPLF had installed a cadre from Tigray who insisted on running as an Argobba Liberation Front candidate instead of an authentic Argobba local. “You don’t know how to be liberated,” the cadre said, “we have come to teach you.” My Russian companion said to me, “I know that man. He is a Russian commissar from 1920.”
It was upsetting to be brought for an open democratic process when little of the sort was being shown. We felt we had been manipulated, as some habeshas do who think they can fool outsiders at will; after all, ferinjotch wustun aygebatchewm, aydelem? Our report embarrassed the Government. From then I became a critic of the Leninist character of the EPRDF regime.
Meles Zenawi’s Reformist Credentials
By 2004, Ethiopia’s political scene appeared to be changing. To be sure, throughout that year, large numbers of Oromos were booted to the Dedessa prison simply for expressing the innocent disagreements about government policy. To be sure, judges continued to work under the thumbs of a centrally-controlled judicial system. But something new was in the air.
I caught a glimpse of that when I, known as a critic of the regime, was invited to receive an honorary doctorate Addis Ababa University in July 2004. And during my visit to Ethiopia earlier this year and since, I learned that EPRDF officials went to some lengths to open up the media to competing political parties. I learned that in 2004, Reporters Without Borders had removed the name of PM Meles Zenawi from their list of enemies of a free press for the first time. And recently I learned, from a reliable report on the campaign in rural Shoa, that as the election campaign wore on and opposition candidates appeared to be growing in strength, the Government initially insisted on keeping the process open and not interfering with the local electoral process in any way. That was an amazing change, which I attribute to the sense of confidence and security experienced by the EPRDF elite following the purges of General Siye Abraha and his allies in 2001; heightened appreciation of Ethiopian nationhood following the war with Eritrea; successes in growth of infrastructure; improved handling of famines; and growing respect form the international community.
I have cited these liberalizing developments when talking with opposition activists who could not believe that EPRDF ever had any interest in a pluralistic democracy and so should be overthrown by any means possible. One of my critics, confronted by my reference to Meles’s liberalization, finally acknowledged that. He wrote:
I think everybody was banking on the reformist credentials of Meles. It is difficult to argue that there was no change after the split. There is no doubt that the years between the split and 2005 were the best years of the EPRDF. In fact I am of the opinion that had the reforms started earlier, the EPRDF would have done much better at the polls. As it turned out the reforms were too little too late.
Despite these visible reforms, the hatred against EPRDF generated by the policies and actions of their first decade created such intense antagonism that some of the opposition simply could not trust the new openings that EPRDF created. Sensing that CUD elements might be ambivalent about participating whole-heartedly in the constitutionally mandated political process, and fearing that growing popular support for CUD might actually turn them out of office and overturn the major EPRDF reforms in which they believed so strongly, EPRDF leaders engineered an abrupt turn-around in the middle of April.
Ambivalent Regression to an Older Script
A month before the election, party cadres started receiving different signals. Across the country they were told to direct Government resources to pressure the populace to vote for EPRDF. For example, systematic house visits were paid by armed cadres who told peasants that they had better vote for EPRDF or suffer serious consequences. The Government was gearing up for a different sort of denouement than planned, thinking they had to do whatever it took to secure their hold on power (an attitude not unknown to Americans from the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004). Not wanting outsiders to see what was going on, the Government abruptly expelled three American NGOs that had come to monitor the elections.
Much of what transpired subsequently-imposing martial law on election night; premature announcement of EPRDF victory; shootings of demonstrators in June, harassment and property confiscation of CUD party members; arrest of thousands of young males and transporting them to distant hardship prisons-is well known. (Much is still not known, including how and why security forces entered college dormitories in Addis Ababa and Bahr Dar provocatively during the night of June 5, and the extent to which opposition property was confiscated and government critics were silenced.) Following the June 6 massacre, the world recoiled in horror, much as in November 1974 when Mengistu’s agents carried out their bloody massacre.
But then, the regime hurried to pick up the pieces and move on. They convinced themselves if not others that had they not reacted with such violence, mob action would have led to destructive civil actions. They proceeded with initiatives to reform the rules of parliament, re-examine the National Election Board, and draft new legislation regarding the press. They urged the opposition candidates who had won to take over the administration of Addis Ababa and to take their seats in Parliament and to continue their struggle for democratization and economic progress within the constitutionally mandated system. They carried out negotiations day by day with CUD leaders in an effort to avoid further violence and move the country forward. PM Meles said he was looking forward to working with Mayor-elect Berhanu Nega.
And then, due to circumstances about which everyone disagrees, the CUD leaders made a controversial decision not to accept their huge electoral victory and build on it. That decision, many CUD supporters believe, was not in anyone’s best interest. When they broke off talks and refused to enter Parliament, the regime regressed once more to reimpose a veil of terror. Security forces reportedly drove around the city and randomly assassinated innocent civilians in cold blood. They seized and incarcerated rejectionist CUD victors, civil society leaders, and independent journalists. An independent commission has now reported that 193 civilians were murdered, often in horridly brutal ways. All those detained, plus several Ethiopians living abroad, were charged with crimes punishable by death, including the illogical, unfounded, insulting, and self-defeating charge of genocide. With that, Ethiopia plunged from being a country full of democratic promise and then a polity tragically riven with destructive conflict to being the laughing stock of the international community.
Almost Duped Twice or What?
Officials and informal leaders from all the donor countries tried repeatedly to encourage the Prime Minister to reconsider those charges. He adamantly refused to budge, and sought to transform his offensive tactics into defense of an autonomous judicial system. He assured all concerned that the defendants would receive a fair and speedy trial, and that this would enhance respect for Ethiopia’s legal system.
Given the PM’s uncompromising attachment to this line of argument, it appeared futile to continue pushing for a politically negotiated release of the prisoners. I sought to direct attention instead to other, consensually supported openings for progressive development. One of these was to see if the trial proceeded in a way that demonstrated his announced commitment to a judicial system bound by high standards of legal procedure. My hope for that process lay behind the exchanges subsequently carried out in Addis Fortune and on the eineps web site. To quote my conclusion:
We must respect the forms of a systematic, independent, speedy completion of their trial “as a step toward advancing the role of an independent judiciary.” I chose those words deliberately in order to encourage the Government to move forward toward a system in which a judiciary functions autonomously… If legitimate procedures are not respected by the Government, I expect that domestic and international observers will get the word out quickly, and I shall be among the first to voice disapproval… But if the trial is reasonably fair, then its success could be joined with other steps being taken toward reform of the judicial system, the last in the series of four efforts at democratic institution-building.
When the trial adjourned after dragging on for many months, I made an interim assessment based on careful analysis of daily records, and concluded that the trial could be considered neither speedy nor fair:
No ordinary court case, the trial against selected opponents of the EPRDF regime has divided the Ethiopian body politic as has no other issue since the time of Emperor Susneyos. One would expect the Ethiopian judicial system to go to great lengths to demonstrate its integrity both to Ethiopian citizens and to international observers. Its failure to do so reflects, at the very least, a lack of capacity to mount a fair and speedy trial…
Of all flaws in this trial, I consider the most dysfunctional to be . . . the prosecution’s repeated failure to link evidence with specific defendants or charges. Lack of adequate differentiation has [marked] these proceedings from the outset. While the Government appears, at best, to possess hard evidence incriminating one or two individuals of one or two categories of action that are possibly illegal, it has included several dozens of individuals under a broad range of criminal accusations. It is this feature of the proceedings that opened up to ridicule what could and should have been a serious juridical process.
During this period of recess, it would behoove the Ministry of Justice to re-assess those charges more carefully and demonstrate to the world the high level of legal competence that Ethiopians manifest at their best. That would lend greater speed and fairness to the final sessions of this trial and thereby enable Ethiopians to get back to working together to make their beloved land a better place. If such action were to be matched by a willingness of defendants to avail themselves of counsel, that desired outcome would be facilitated even more.
On Thursday, October 5, the trial resumed. One might have thought that the Ministry of Justice would have done something to redress the shortcomings of the first phase. Yet the first day of the resumed trial was abysmal. Lead judge Adil Ahmed Abdullahi and lead prosecutor Shemelis Kemal were simply not present. The trial began an hour and 15 minutes late. Absent a quorum to rule on the admissibility of evidence, the proceedings were quickly adjourned and postponed for eight days. The senior judge and the main prosecutor were not even present. Nothing was accomplished; the trial was delayed yet another week.
And so, are we back to square one? Was the notion of putting the prisoners on trial to parade an evolving legal process simply another sort of make-believe to dupe the ferenjis? Or can that ill-conceived theater still be repaired? If not, let us hope that this time the donors will waste no time in confronting the regime with their marked displeasure. And let us hope that another war with Somalia will not becloud the issue of justice and good governance in Ethiopia. It is especially in time of war that a nation needs to be unified. Besides, andnet kala, agarun yakeberal.