Lately, Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia, has been rounding up dissidents, journalists, opposition party political leaders and members under a diktat known as “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009”. This diktat approved on a 286-91 vote of the rubberstamp parliament is so arbitrary and capricious that Human Rights Watch concluded “the law could provide a new and potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy.”
The “anti-terrorism law” is a masterpiece of ambiguity, unintelligibility, obscurity, superficiality, unclarity, uncertainty, inanity and vacuity. It defines “terrorism” with such vagueness and overbreadth that any act, speech, statement, and even thought, could be punished under its sweeping provisions. Anyone who commits a “terrorist act” with the aim of “advancing a political, religious or ideological cause” and intending to “influence the government”, “intimidate the public”, “destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social institutions of the country” could be condemned to long imprisonment or suffer the death penalty. Making or publishing statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” is a punishable offense under the “law”.
Anyone who provides “moral support or advice” or has any contact with an individual accused of a terrorist act is presumed to be a terrorist supporter. Anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts” is deemed a “terrorist”. Peaceful protesters who carry banners critical of the regime could be charged for “promotional statements encouraging” terrorist acts. Anyone who “disrupts any public service” is considered a “terrorist”; and workers who may legitimately grieve working conditions by work stoppages could be charged with “terrorism” for disruption. Young demonstrators who break windows in a public building by throwing rocks could be jailed as “terrorists” for “causuing serious damage to property.” A person who “fails to immediately inform or give information or evidence to the police” on a neighbor, co-worker or others s/he may suspect of “terrorism” could face upto 10 years for failure to report. Two or more persons who have contact with a “terror” suspect could be charged with conspiracy to commit “terrorism”.
The procedural due process rights (fair trial) of suspects and the accused guaranteed under the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights conventions are ignored, evaded, overlooked and disregarded by the “law”. “The police may arrest without court warrant any person whom he reasonably suspects to have committed or is committing a terrorism” and hold that person in incommunicado detention. The police can engage in random and “sudden search and seizure” of the person, place or personal effects of anyone suspected of “terrorism”. The police can “intercept, install or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, internet, electronic, postal, and similar communications” of a person suspected of terrorism. The police can order “any government institution, official, bank, or a private organization or an individual” to turn over documents, evidence and information on a “terror” suspect.
A “terror” suspect can be held in custody without charge for up to “four months”. Any “evidence” presented by the regime’s prosecutor against a “terror” suspect in “court” is admissible, including “confessions” (extracted by torture), “hearsay”, “indirect, digital and electronic evidences” and “intelligence reports even if the report does not disclose the source or the method it was gathered (including evidence obtained by torture). The “law” presumes the “terror” suspect to be guilty and puts the burden of proof on the suspect/defendant in violation of the universal principle that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Such is the “anti-terrorism law” that was used to arrest and jail Eskinder Nega, Debebe Eshetu, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Taye, Zemenu Molla, Nathnael Makonnen, Asaminaw Birhanu, and Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye and thousands of others over the past few months and years. In any country where the rule of law prevails and an independent judiciary thrives, such a “law” would not pass the smell test let alone a constitutional one. But in a world of kangaroo courts, rubberstamp parliaments and halls of vengance and injustice, the diktat of one man is the law of the land. So, 2011 Ethiopia has become George Orwell’s 1984: Thinking is terrorism. Dissent is terrorism. Speaking truth to power is terrorism. Having a conscience is terrorism. Peaceful protest is terrorism. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism. Standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism. Defending the rule of law is terrorism. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism.
Dictatorship is State Terrorism
Zenawi’s “anti-terrorism” diktat is intended to muzzle journalists from criticizing, youths from peaceably demonstrating, opposition parties from political organizing, ordinary citizens from speaking, civic leaders from mobilizing, teachers from imparting knowledge, lawyers from advocating scholars from analyzing and the entire nation from questioning his dictatorial rule. It is a “law” singularly intended to criminalize speech, police thought, outlaw critical publications, intimidate hearts, crush spirits, terrorize minds and shred constitutional and internationally-guaranteed human rights. When the State uses the “law” to silence and violently stamp out dissent, jail and keep in solitary confinement dissenters, opposition leaders and members, suppress the press and arbitrarily arrest journalists, trash human rights with impunity, trample upon the rule of law and scoff at constitutional accountability, does it not become a terrorist state?
“Softness to traitors will destroy us all,” said Maximilien Robespierre, the mastermind and architect of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. Robespierre justified the use of terror by the state to crush all opposition and those he considered enemies of the state: “Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people’s mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people’s cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution-are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?” asked Robespierre rhetorically as he rounded up tens of thousands of innocent French citizens for the guillotine.
Zenawi once provided a definitive answer to his “enemies within and without”: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” He is always ready to crush, smash and thrash his opposition. He described the leaders of opposition political coalition that won the 2005 elections as a bunch of “insurrectionists” (euphemism for “terrorists”): “The CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law.” When 193 unarmed demonstrators were massacred and 763 grievously wounded by security officers, Zenawi shed crocodile tears but said they were all terrorists lobbing grenades: “I regret the deaths but these were not normal demonstrations. You don’t see hand grenades thrown at normal demonstrations.” His own handpicked Inquiry Commission contradicted him after a meticulous investigation: “There was no property destroyed. There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade (as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs). The shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protester.”
Zenawi has demonized opposition groups as “terrorists” bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people.” He has put on “trial” and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of the Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described that Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has undertaken a systematic campaign of intimidation against his critics describing them in his speeches as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was filthy and trying to “dirty up the people like themselves.”
In the police state Ethiopia has become, opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24/7 surveillance, and the ordinary people they meet in the street are intimidated, harassed and persecuted. The climate of fear that permeates every aspect of urban and rural society is reinforced and maintained by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making impossible dissent or peaceful opposition political activity. As former president and presently opposition leader Dr. Negasso Gidada has documented, the structure of state terrorism in Ethiopia is so horrific one can only find parallels for it in Stalin-era Soviet Union:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
State terrorism is the systematic use and threat of use of violence and coercion, intimidation, imprisonment and persecution to create a prevailing climate of fear in a population with a specific political message and outcome: “Resistance is futile! Resistance will be crushed! There will be no resistance! ” State terrorism paralyzes the whole society and incapacitates individuals by entrenching fear as a paramount feature of social inaction and immobilization through the exercise of arbitrary power and extreme brutality. In Ethiopia today, it is not just that the climate of fear and loathing permeates every aspect of social and economic life, indeed the climate of fear has transformed the “Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine” in to the “Land of Thirteen Months of Fear, Loathing, Despair and Darkness”.
Inspirational Thought from Nelson Mandela
Africa’s greatest leader, Nelson Mandela, was jailed for 27 years as a “terrorist” by the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1993, three years after he left the notorious Robben Island prison, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Those jailed as “terrorists” in Ethiopia should draw great comfort and inspiration from the words of the greatest African leader alive:
I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.
We should all express our admiration, gratitude and appreciation for today’s “terrorists” and tomorrow’s peacemakers, conciliators, hopegivers and nation-builders.
Free Eskinder Nega, Debebe Eshetu, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Taye, Zemenu Molla, Nathnael Makonnen, Asaminaw Birhanu, Johan Persson, Martin Schibbye and thousands of other unknown and unnamed Ethiopian political prisoners.