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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The 1994 constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia provides in its fundamental rights and freedoms section, specifically under Article 21, the following regarding the rights of persons held in custody and convicted prisoners:
1. All persons held in custody and persons imprisoned upon conviction and sentencing have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity;
2. All persons shall have the opportunity to communicate with, and to be visited by their spouses or partners, close relatives, friends, religious councilors, medical doctors and their legal counsel.
The responsibility of ensuring that the rights set out under Article 21 are fully respected primarily lies on the government. Several prisoners and their families have claimed over the years that these rights are routinely violated. These claims have received extensive coverage even by international human rights activists. This week saw yet another claim lodged by the mother of TemesgenDessalegn, the former editor-in-chief of the weekly Fitih who is serving a three-year sentence in connection with news reports and articles which appeared on the newspaper. In a petition written to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and which was copied to the Office of the Prime Minister, Parliament, the Institution of the Ombudsman and various diplomatic missions, Temesgen’s mother said that her son has been denied his visitation rights for over a month now. The government must launch a probe into the matter and take the appropriate measures.
The right to be visited of all inmates must be respected regardless of their status or the reason they are being held in custody. A considerable number of prisoners have submitted petitions to courts and publicized through other means stating that their families and friends have been banned from visiting them. Given the frequency of similar complaints, the government must look into why the entities to blame—the federal and regional prison administrations—impose such prohibitions in a clear contravention of the constitutionally established rights of citizens and hold to account the perpetrators. In short, the government is duty-bound to discharge responsibly its constitutional obligation to protect the rights of persons held under custody.It would be a gross dereliction of duty if it were to turn a deaf ear to accusations of rights violations by detainees who look to it to afford them safety and protection while in correction facilities.
Aside from constituting a breach of the rule of law, the act of forbidding the loved ones or friends of someone from visiting them in prison and thereby causing them anguish very much goes against Ethiopians’ cherished tradition of caring for those languishing in prisons. Such callousness prompts many to lose faith in their government.
As we have said time and again there can be no negotiating when it comes to respecting the law. If Ethiopia is to become truly a democratic nation, fundamental principles like the rule of law and equality of all citizens before the law must be upheld scrupulously. Anything which impedes this is bound to lead to tyranny and the curtailmentof the rights enshrined in the constitution. And the country cannot earn the respect of the international community through the effort extricate itself from the clutches of poverty alone; its performance in terms of ensuring the unabridged observance of constitutionally guaranteed rights is as well an important factor in this regard. The public should not be disenfranchised due to the infringement of its rights and lack of good governance.
To recap,the rights of persons held under custody as provided for by Article 21 of the constitution needs to be enforced to the letter and in the spirit of the constitution. This provision is reinforced by another constitutional proviso which stipulates that everyone has the right to respect for his human dignity. As the stakeholder principally responsible for seeing to it that these rights are indeed respected, the government is obliged to improve its checkered track record in this regard and bring anyone found to have flouted a fundamental constitutional right. Otherwise, it will be complicit in the acts of the perpetrators and thereby have its credibility put on the line.