Cracks in Ethiopia's Calm Faade

Rights groups say 10,000 are imprisoned for political or national-security reasons

The art of political compromise, Ethiopians will tell you, has never been big here. Over the past 50 years, the country has gone from dictatorship to dictatorship in a succession of bloodbaths.

Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor, was overthrown in 1974 by Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Colonel Mengistu's Marxist regime - known as Dergue - gained international notoriety for its unapologetic approach to political murder. People were shot in the street, their deaths were advertised on state TV, and whoever wished to recover the bodies had to pay for the spent bullets. Close to 20 years later, it was Mengistu's turn to be overthrown.

The man who took his place in 1991, Meles Zenawi, has made a name for himself on the opposite premises, substituting talk for terror. He introduced a multiparty system, liberalized the economy, and sanctioned the proliferation of the independent press. Today, Ethiopia ranks as the second-largest recipient of US aid to Africa, a privilege many say has come with its increased involvement in the war to topple the Islamic regime in Sudan. Flanked by two deeply unstable countries - Sudan and Somalia - Ethiopia is seen by the US as a vast oasis of peace and calm.

Hard numbers dug up by human rights organizations, however, tell a different story.

In a report released three months ago, Human Rights Watch/Africa detailed a pattern of arbitrary arrests and summary executions eerily reminiscent of the days of the Dergue. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council published the names of 10,000 political detainees, none of whom have had their day in court, and of 132 dissidents who have disappeared in the seven years since Mr. Meles took power.

The government's perceived inability to accommodate political diversity, observers have argued, is not so much a product of a Darwinian tradition of rule by the strongest as much as the result of minority rule. Meles and his Tigrean People's Liberation Front - an ethnically based armed group that overthrew the Dergue - represent 5 percent of Ethiopia's population. As a Western diplomat pointed out, "this is a minority government ... their challenge is to enlarge their political base."

Human rights activists say the challenge has been largely ignored, a claim Meles rejects. "I know what happens when peaceful dissent is muzzled," he said in an interview, "I know what happens because I was on the receiving end of it. There is no reason why others would not do what I did," under the same repressive circumstances.

Muzzling the press?

Yet even to the casual observer, Meles's democratic speeches strike a hollow note. For one thing, 14 journalists are sitting in jail waiting to be charged with a specific offense. Fourteen more have been accused of libel or incitement to ethnic hatred and are out on bail. Today, Ethiopia ranks as the country with the highest number of jailed journalists in Africa.

Asked about the government's handling of the press, Meles is quick to cite Germany and its laws against Nazi propaganda. "Do we have journalists in prison? Yes, we do. Do I believe this is wrong or that we are stifling political expression? No, I don't. What we need is accountability. If what they publish is against the law, if it incites ethnic violence and hatred, then we take them to court."

Yet when three top editors from Ethiopia's largest newspaper, Tobia, were recently arrested, accountability did not seem to be an issue. The paper published a seemingly innocuous UN document illustrating procedures for evacuating its employees in case of a security emergency that contained a few disparaging comments about Ethiopia's security situation. Three days later, the editors were jailed and informally accused of endangering public security. The next day, a fire gutted the paper's offices. Since then, Tobia has suspended publication.

"The government will not come out and shut the paper because it's good for the show of democracy. They keep the press for the consumption of the international community," says Derbew Temegen, a lawyer who is defending the editors.

Journalists sitting in Addis's central prison are by no means alone.

"Our president is in prison, our vice president was assassinated, and our secretary general is in exile in the United States," says Shimelis Zewdie, deputy secretary general of the Ethiopian Teacher's Association (ETA), one of the country's two largest labor unions.

Labor unions defanged

ETA head Taye Wolde Semayat, an elderly man in precarious health, was arrested two years ago and charged with heading a clandestine armed group. His successor, Assefa Maru, was gunned down by police in broad daylight on his way to work in May last year. He was subsequently accused of planning a terrorist attack, a charge his wife, Shewaye Gebeyehu, laughs bitterly at.

"He wrote, and he spoke, and he loved his country," Ms. Shewaye says. "I've seen what happened to my husband. For me, it is evidence that there is no democracy in this country." Since May, the ETA's 138 branch offices have been shut down and the seven members of the executive committee have been dismissed from their jobs without explanation.

Another powerful labor organization, the Industrial Federation of Banking and Insurance Trade Unions, has also been quietly done away with. The original federation was declared illegal and a new, friendlier version has been brought safely within the government's fold. Still, residues of the old labor union remain with an obstinate bunch, who refuse to let go until the courts have had the last say.

"From time to time, the police come and asks me: why don't you leave?" says Ato Abyi, the once respected president of the old labor colossus.

Still, he maintains, "this government is better than the Dergue. They don't kill you on the street. They kill you gradually by taking your bread away. I appreciate that, I really do."

The association with the Dergue is one that the government would not take kindly to. More than 1,800 officials of the old regime have been arrested and 3,000 more have been charged with genocide and crimes of war. Yet in the crowded coffee bars of Addis, it is precisely this sort of comparison that is often heard over the hiss of espresso machines.

Analysts and diplomats say the comparison is vintage Ethiopia: extreme, unforgiving, and ultimately unbalanced. "The improvement on the Dergue has been vast," says a senior Western diplomat. "Accountability is coming into this country against a tradition of rule by the strongest," says another. "Yes, there are problems with human rights," he adds, "But how are we [in the West] going to be useful? By hammering on their heads?"

The answer to that question, people in Washington have found out, is a resounding no. Diplomats have been made to choose between overt criticism of the government's practices and access to its top officials.

"[Human rights issues] are being discussed," the first diplomat says. "But we have to do this in private."

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