Is the Ethiopian justice system on the right path of reform?
An infamous prison was closed and there are bids to prosecute officials who abused power, but activists remain cautious.
Zinabu Tunu, spokesperson at the office of the Federal Attorney General, told Al Jazeera that the arrests in June were justified given the significance of the crime.
“There is no tendency for rollback of reforms,” he said. “Previously, many were tortured, imprisoned or exiled for their point of view, while others had opted to join an armed struggle to demand their rights. All these have been pardoned under an amnesty law and previously banned voices are starting to be heard.”
Senior officials who oversaw human rights abuses will be held accountable, he promised.
In December last year, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster aired a documentary focusing on acts of torture by security services over the years. While rights groups have praised the increased openness under Prime Minister Ahmed, they have warned against “trial by media” and underlined defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Tunu defended the documentary, however, citing a need to come clean on the crimes committed by government officials and departments.
Calls for institutional change
Bizuayehu Wondimu, a veteran member of Ethiopia’s oldest human rights NGO, the Human Rights Council (HRC), cautiously welcomed the recent attempts at reforming the justice system, acknowledging that significant change cannot take place overnight.
Wondimu claimed HRC was under pressure from the Ethiopian government for years and had its bank account suspended for “violating” a now-repealed law that had required 90 percent of funding for human rights organisations to come from local sources.
Now, he said, HRC is able to operate more independently.
“I have also seen the governmental Human Rights Commission be more forthcoming to investigate alleged human rights abuses and judges trying to be bolder in their court proceedings,” said Wondimu.
However, Wondimu said change is not yet institutionalised.
“Although I have seen a decrease in [the rate of] physical assault on prisoners by prison staff, the expansive use of the anti-terror law and the practice of putting prisoners in dark cells and solitary confinement concerns me,” he said.
Wondimu called for the police recruitment process to be improved and said officers should be better trained in how to protect human rights in terms of the amount of force they used on suspects.
Recently, several videos depicting instances of police brutality led to outrage.
Wondimu was also concerned by the increased military presence to control unrest in various parts of Ethiopia, a practice which he said should be left to police.
For his part, Wabella said that despite the best will, larger issues at play could derail the current reform efforts.
“One of the main problems for Ethiopia for the last decade has been the ‘ethnicisation’ of politics. Many people in the government … are more accountable to their ethnicity than the law of the land, that pattern hasn’t changed.
“You see some prominent faces, like former politician and prisoner Birtukan Mideksa leading the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), and another former prisoner, Daniel Bekele, heading the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. But they will not have enough capacity to do what they want, if the ethnicisation of politics and the justice system doesn’t stop.”