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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Gete Alemu
"Ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia are for the most part the work of the government. For example, the case of the Sidama who were pitted against the Wolaita and other southern ethnic groups was sparked by a controversial government document issued in 2012." - Gete Alemu, Ethiopian human rights lawyer (Photo: Ethiomedia)
To work as a human rights lawyer in a country under dictatorship is a risky undertaking. “When you are a lawyer in defense of human rights, the authorities consider you a threat, thereby subjecting you to an incessant attack until you either flee the country or give in as one of their subservient subjects," Gete Alemu, a former college law instructor tells Ethiomedia. Here's the full text of the interview: * * * * Ethiomedia: To begin with, can you introduce yourself to our audience?
Gete:- My name is Gete Alemu. I was born on September 3, 1984 in Fugnanbira town in Oromia region of Eastern Ethiopia. I was schooled there from first grade up to my high school graduation. By 2002, I was enrolled at Mekelle University from where I graduated with LLB degree in Law in 2007. Subsequently, I worked as a college instructor for three years, and by 2009-10, I was head of the Law Department at Furra Institute of Development Study and Education. In 2010, I joined Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Authority of Southern Ethiopia before I moved to Ethiopian Human Rights Commission where I served as an Investigation Expert. In 2014, I went to Sydney, Australia, on a scholarship and earned my Master’s degree (LLM).
Ethiomedia - What was your occupation in Ethiopia before you left for Australia?
Gete: – I was a land and environmental lawyer for four years. By saying I was a land and environmental lawyer, I mean I was handling land ownership disputes, compensation issues for victims who lost their land or property. In addition, I also used to oversee disputes over public property such as forests, natural resources, and communal lands. In the meantime, I was also taking part in the drafting of regional land and environmental legislations decreed between 2010 and 2013.
Ethiomedia:- Can you share with us the challenges you faced when you were working as Land and Environmental Law expert?
Gete:- The major problems with regard to the majority of rural communities in Ethiopia are related to ethnic discrimination, land grabbing in the name of investment and economic development, mainly in Southern Ethiopia as well as in Gambella. Conflicts in these areas have resulted in mass killings of innocent citizens and displacement of indigenous people by the ruling TPLF officials (For details on ethnic conflict initiated by land grabbing one can visit the site: https://www.ahrethiopia.org/?p=24).
In January 2011, nearly 550 household farmers from Arab Minch Zuria Woreda Lante Kebele brought a complaint to the Land and Environmental Protection Authority (LEPA). I was in charge of investigating ongoing land grabbing, corruption and resource destruction at Lante Kebele, an area known for being excessively rich for its cash crops like premium grade bananas for export.
In the course of my investigation, I learned that the ruling party EPRDF never won any election in the Kebele. This means the area was a target for the ruling party which wanted to avenge its defeats. The government launched massive crackdowns in the area and many people were killed, imprisoned or fled the area to save their lives. The government pitted the Gamo ethnic group against the Amhara, the Wolayta, and the Gofa as well as other ethnic groups. Three individuals were killed and many others were injured as a result.
One of the punitive measures the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took was to grab land from the victims and give it away to their supporters. For instance, Tadese Belete, an EPRDF supporter, was given 60 hectares of protected forest area under the pretext that the person was an investor. However, he had no license nor was he an investor when he acquired illegally a huge part of the protected forest area.
Mr Tadesse, who was a front man for the officials behind him, became a big shot in the multi-million-dollar charcoal business. He was burning down forest areas, including 100-year-old natural trees only endemic to Ethiopia, were chopped down, and burned and distributed as charcoal among the 4 million city residents of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The burning down of the protected forests had a grave consequence on the biodiversity besides contributing to widespread deforestation of the area. Rain on the deforested area led to massive flooding of Lante Kebele as well as the salination of Lake Abaya and Chamo, a major sources of fish and crocodile harvesting.
The destruction brought about by the massive deforestation leaves the town disconnected from key areas of the region because the infrastructure is completely washed away by the floods. The year in year out destruction has gradually subjected the people to poverty and squalor. My report to the government on the level of destruction and corruption pervading the area fell on deaf ears. The report was heavily censored and buried in the files of the authority.
Ethiomedia: Let’s get to the details. Can you elaborate to what extent the level of corruption is in the area? And what measures, if any, are being taken to defend the rights of the local people?
Gete: OK. For instance, let’s take the much-dreaded security officials. They are engaged in the invasion of banana plantations (they have become exporters) as well the commercial production of charcoal. The illegal activities by the powerful men of the government have pushed the poor farmers into poverty.
One high-ranking official who acquired a huge plot of land in the lucrative Lante Kebele is Tadesse Chaffo, chief of the Trade and Industry Bureau and Vice President of Southern Region. Many other federal and regional cadres of the ruling party have acquired sizable farm areas, and their land grabbing comes at the cost of uprooting the local populace into the roaming mass of the unemployed and homeless.
After my investigation was finalized, the director of EPA requested and took the whole document from my team, claiming that releasing the report needs a political decision by higher authorities. We never saw our report again.
Because of the nature of my job, I was denied job promotion as well as training and scholarship opportunities. Losing such chances of personal growth constitutes a severe blow. With the passage of time, moreover, and when I continued in my investigative career, I was threatened with arrest because, in the eyes of the authorities, I was a time-bomb who will one day explode with devastating reports of corruption and other crimes against the people.
Therefore, staying in this type of situation became increasingly unbearable and frustrating. I decided that I should leave immediately if I want to evade arrest. As a result, I joined the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was supposed to be ‘independent.’
Ethiomedia: What areas were you covering when you joined EHRC?
Gete: When I joined EHRC as an Investigation Expert in Hawassa city, my duties were to:
  1. Investigate human rights violations
  2. Pay sudden visits to prison, detention centers and police stations.
  3. Prepare human rights report, and
  4. Give training to police, prosecutors, courts, prison administration personnel, etc.
But the new office was not like I what I had thought.It soon became clear to me that the officials of the so-called Human Rights Commission do not really want any investigations to be conducted into human rights violations because they know it is their government that is going to be incriminated in the end.
So, in order to cover their wrongdoing, they focus on organizing trainings intensely. In the meantime, complaints of human rights violations pour in every day. At least the office receives between 20 to 30 complaints each day. The complaints and serious human rights violations that come from all over southern Ethiopia, including Oromia and the Southern Regions, constitute beatings, torture, death by hunger, and extrajudicial killings.
The charges that are filed with the commission also include the detention without trial of opposition members, supporters, human rights workers and journalists.
Gete Alemu
Gete Alemu speaking about human rights violations in Ethiopia (Photo: Ethiomedia)
Ethiomedia: There are media reports of ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia. What’s your say on such very disturbing issues. Gete: Ethnic conflicts are usually under reported in the country. There is a government monopoly of the media, and ethnic conflicts do not get the coverage they deserve. Those that made it to international headlines are those reported by foreign media like the BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, Voice of America etc.
As to my knowledge, ethnic conflicts are usually sparked by the government. For instance, the government issued in 2012 a document regarding the administration of Hawassa City. The government issued a controversial document known as “70/30”. This means that the Sidama, who in reality were the majority inhabitants of Hawassa city, will become a minority. The document virtually deprives the Sidamas their status as the major stakeholders in all aspects of Hawassa city.
The Sidama people believed that the document was issued by Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, who is ethnically from Wolaita, the group that was given the advantage. As a result of the document, a bloody ethnic conflict erupted between the two major groups. There were killings and widespread chaos and the fear of uncertainty (See Ethiopian Information Center). The government was forced to suspend the document temporarily to avoid the rise of the Sidama, who are about 4 million strong and many of them against the governing EPRDF.
Ethiomedia: Were the Sidama a target of hostile government measures?
Gete: Yes. In June 2013, over 900 Sidama were evicted from their land in Hawassa because the government sought their land for the construction of Hawassa stadium. The victims were never compensated or given any land in exchange for the loss of their property. From bad to worse, the 900 individuals were moved into an abandoned warehouse on the city’s dumpsite. The warehouse had no running water, electricity or whatsoever. Many fell ill and one woman died because of illnesses related to appalling living conditions on the toxic dump site. Later, the victims took to the streets to protest against government actions that uprooted them from their ancestral homes where they used to live as subsistence farmers. The protesters camped at the office of the regional president, who ordered that they be provided with makeshift shelters. Each individual was given a shack that has only a corrugated iron sheet supported by four wooden columns and nothing else. No side walls for the people who live under the tin roof.
I took the assignment and investigated their conditions which I found too dismal and sickening for human habitation. The report cited a violation of the right to basic necessities of life like decent housing and running water. The victims were not compensated for their lost property, the report indicated. The commission heavily censored the report, whose content was very much altered. The commission was expected to send copies of the report to other relevant organizations. It never did. Almost all reports of human rights violations are buried and killed inside the Commission.
The Commission is constitutionally mandated to submit a yearly report to the parliament and the UN. But it has never done so, and the general message it sends is as if there is no human rights violation in the country.
Ethiomedia: You said one of your duties was visiting prison conditions. What is your understanding?
Gete: It is public secret that torture and other inhuman forms of treatment have been rampant in prisons and detention centers throughout the country.
For instance in Wolaita Sodo Prison, an inmate suspected of committing an unspecified crime was subjected to severe torture that even his open wounds were visible from pictures of his back. The Wolaita Sodo police officers dragged the detainee out of his cell in the middle of the night and tortured him severely. The reasons are that the policemen were either bribed to do so, or were committing the crime to satisfy their sadistic desires prompted by lack of accountability. The families of the victim sent letters of appeal to various organizations one of which was the European Union (EU), which sent a delegation to the Wolaita Sodo Prison. The Commission was scared that the leak of the severe torture report would taint the image of the government, and decided to pay 3000 Birr as a compensation for the victim. Despite an initial agreement to settle the case, no money was granted to the victim, who is still in prison. The EU delegation returned to Addis with its own observation, and the Human Rights Commission since then closed its doors to foreign visitors. Human rights violations also include medical neglect of prison inmates.
For example, inmates kept in the most unhygienic conditions were down with serious sicknesses that many of them were near-death conditions. The police officers failed to report to their bosses about the critical conditions of the inmates. The victims were intentionally neglected and as a result one inmate, namely Tariku Jilo, died on December 30, 2012. During investigation, government officials were asked why they didn’t send the patients to hospitals. They said they had no budget to cover medical expenses of the inmates. However, the truth is far from what they gave as a reason. Usually, the policemen are engaged in abuse, torture and other inhuman treatments of prisoners, and the neglect they showed over the patients was part of the pattern of condemning inmates to their own fate. Some of the known patients included Tesfaye Tamerat, Awoke Tsegaye, Gizaw Udessa and Gezahegn Galli.