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Ethiopia treason trial of opposition leaders, rights activists begins

[JURIST] A group of 111 opposition politicians, rights activists, aid workers and journalists went on trial Tuesday in Ethiopia on charges [JURIST report] of treason, inciting violence and attempting to commit genocide, despite calls from human rights groups for their release. If convicted, the defendants could receive the death penalty. The trial began Tuesday with the prosecution promising to show that the defendants intended "to overthrow and dismantle the duly established government through violence." The charges relate to mass demonstrations [JURIST report] in the wake of Ethiopia's May 2005 elections and alleged attacks on ethnic Tigrayans during protests against ballot fraud. Only three defendants agreed to participate in the proceedings Tuesday with the remaining questioning whether they would receive a fair trial. Several defendants said Tuesday they had been abused during their detention and the presiding judge ordered prison officials to investigate the allegations.

In a report [text; press release] Tuesday, Amnesty International [advocacy website] said that the "prisoners of conscience" have not used or advocated violence and expressed concern about the fairness of the trial. Amnesty urged the Ethiopian government:

  • To release immediately and unconditionally, with charges withdrawn, the political opposition leaders, human rights defenders and journalists, who are prisoners of conscience and have not used or advocated violence;

  • To ensure that all elements of fair trial are afforded to the defendants, including the right to be tried by a competent and independent court; to guarantee the presumption of innocence, including by ensuring that the burden of proof rests on the prosecution, and to ensure the "equality of arms" between prosecution and defendants, including by ensuring adequate time and facility for those having legal counsel to prepare a full defence and effective examination of witnesses;

  • To exclude the application of the death penalty, which is a violation of the right to life and a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment;

  • To establish independent and impartial investigations into any allegations of torture or ill-treatment made by defendants, and to ensure that evidence obtained as a result of torture or ill-treatment is not admitted in the proceedings, and that officials suspected of having committed acts of torture or ill-treatment are brought to justice;

  • To ensure that defendants are treated humanely in custody in accordance with international and regional standards for the treatment of prisoners, such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners [text], with particular regard to medical treatment, family visits and communications, reading materials and writing materials for communications with families and legal representatives;

  • To recognize and implement the right to freedom of opinion and association for political parties and civil society groups, including freedom of the media, as set out in the Ethiopian Constitution [text] and international and regional human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is party, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [text] and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights [PDF text];

  • To respect and protect the legitimate role of human rights defenders and civil society activists, in conformity with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders [text].
  • Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour [JURIST news archive] also expressed concern at the human rights situation in Ethiopia [JURIST news archive] and said that prison conditions for detainees - including the defendants in the present case - were "rudimentary" and "harsh" [JURIST report]. BBC News has more.

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    Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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