It always shocks me when I witness the arrests of human rights activists and journalists in my country, Ethiopia. One of these people who have been arrested is Yonatan Regassa, human rights activist and former spokes person of the oppositional political party known as the Blue Party. After being arrested, the whereabouts of the arrested are usually unknown to the public for some time. This is exactly what happened to Yonatan. No one even knew that he had been arrested. Some of the people he knows went to the police station to report him as missing. They later found out that he was undergoing an interrogation procedure.
According to Ethiopian law, it is only in exceptional cases that the police are allowed to arrest suspects without a court warrant. Nevertheless, the police arrest individuals, such as journalists and human rights activists, without having court warrants. Moreover, the courts usually give their judgment after a long period of the accused being held in prison. This has a severe impact on the emotional well being of the jailed. There is a great chance that they will lose hope – and it causes anxiety both for the accused and their families. Delaying judgments is against the principle of the law. Justice delayed is justice denied.
How can police officers arrest people for showing concern for human rights?
The rights of prisoners to be visited by family and close friends is, most of the time, suspended – especially until the police are finished investigating and the prisoner is charged with a criminal offence. Though the right to be visited by ones family and friends is recognized under the constitution of the country, the unlawful situation sometimes goes to the extent of denying the accused their right to be visited by lawyers. This has the potential to create a wider gap in the already existing, unbalanced relationship between the government’s systems and the vulnerable human rights activist armed only with a pen and paper. Human rights activists are often charged with serious and complex crimes, such as terrorism, which requires strong, professional legal assistance. Even worse, they have difficulties in presenting witnesses to testify on their behalf because the witnesses know that they will be targeted by the government if they give a testimony in favor of an accused activist.
What is more shocking is that the police usually arrest human rights activists and others even without collecting the necessary evidence. Often, the investigators do not start collecting evidence until after the activists have been arrested, meaning that they arrest people without having anything against them at all. This is clearly against the presumption of innocence. These individuals have their own lives, families and jobs which they are responsible for. However, it is easy for the Ethiopian police to arrest them without reason. What the police usually do is ask the court to give them several days to investigate the crime, which of course the courts always permit. Even when the accused are not found guilty according to the Ethiopian law, there is no procedure that allows victims to request compensation for neither their arrest nor the right to get back to their previous jobs. This is what happened to the human rights activist and member of the Ethiopian blogging group Zone 9, Abel Wabella. He used to work at the Ethiopian Airlines, but even though he was released and the court freed him from the criminal charges he was accused of, the airline was not willing to give back his previous position.
Journalists and human rights activists are citizens who express their attitudes about the human right issues within the country. How can police officers arrest people for showing concern for human rights? How can this lead to people being arrested without court warrant? Imagine the situation their families and close friends must be in! Who is responsible for all this mess? The constitution provided several rights for accused individuals. Why do we have such laws if it is not meant to have practical value? Why is the international community, including international organizations, not doing more than preparing reports about the arrests of these individuals? These are the main questions I always ask myself, but I could not come up with an answer. Large numbers of human right activists and journalists are paying the price during and after the police interrogations and investigations. It is not only about their arrest, it is also about the way the justice system handles their cases.
All these procedures carried out by the justice branches of the government have two major connotations. First, it shows the partiality and the justice system’s lack of independence from the manipulation of a corrupt government. Secondly, it sends a message to human rights activists and political prisoners to shut their mouths and stop criticizing the government. If they do not, the message of threats against their lives and their families comes across loud and clear. Does this method really work for a government in the 21st century?At least in the long run, I hope not. It is painful to witness the injustice and intimidation against the activists for human rights.