May 11, 2005
ADDIS ABABA - Repression and rights abuses by the Ethiopian government make
voting in this week's national elections a "hollow exercise" for
most people in the country's biggest region, a human rights group said on
The May 15 contest, only Ethiopia's second real multi-party elections, are seen as a test of its progress toward democracy after centuries of feudalism and decades of authoritarian rule.
Ethiopia held its first democratic elections in 1995, but almost all opposition parties boycotted them.
Elections in 2000 were won by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, whose most powerful party, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), ousted Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Despite the opposition's strongest challenge yet, the coalition is widely favored to win a third consecutive five-year term at the helm of Africa's top coffee producer.
But in a case study of the Oromia region, home to a third of Ethiopia's population of 71 million and an active separatist movement, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said local authorities had consistently harassed, beaten and detained people they believed opposed the government.
"Since 1992, regional authorities in Oromia have cultivated a climate of fear and repression by using state power to punish political dissent in often brutal fashion," the group said in a report published before Sunday's elections.
"The pervasive pattern of repression and abuse documented in this report ensures that voting on May 15 will be a hollow exercise for most of Oromia's population."
The government slammed the report as hearsay and lies. Information Minister Bereket Simon said: "It can be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. The report has nothing to do with the realities of Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia.
"These people (HRW) after observing the mammoth opposition rally and that of the government should have at least given credit to the democratic process pursued by the government."
Donor countries, which provide $2 billion in budget support to Ethiopia annually, are keen to see democracy enhanced in the Horn of Africa country.
Human Rights Watch quoted a 19-year-old woman who said she was accused of sabotaging the May elections and stripped to her underwear by police officials before being repeatedly kicked.
"They told me that I had gone to school not for education but to do politics," the unnamed student said was quoted as saying. "They put a pistol to my mouth and said they would kill me."
Another method of torture used by police and military officials involved tying a partially full bottle of water to the testicles of male detainees accused of supporting the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Human Rights Watch said.
It said at least 20 children under the age of 15 had been arrested since 2001, one boy for tattooing OLF on his hand.
Anticipating international scrutiny of the polls, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government has pushed through reforms aimed at making the polls more open, Human Rights Watch said.
The government has allowed the opposition access to state-controlled media, relaxed tough registration requirements for opposition candidates and invited foreign observers.
However, most voters were denied the right to voice their political views without risking some form of punishment, and did not have much choice among the parties on offer, Human Rights Watch said.