A Comment on Amnesty International and Muslim ‘protests’

(By Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Last weekend (November 3rd), Amnesty International issued another of its ‘demands’ for what it called an “Independent Investigation Into Rights Violations by the Ethiopian Government”, claiming that the Ethiopian authorities were committing human rights violations in response to an ongoing Muslim protest movement in the country, and that theGovernment continued to target a “peaceful Muslim protest movement”. Amnesty allegations included: large numbers of protestors arrested, many of whom remained in detention; numerous reports of police using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators; key figures charged with terrorism; most targeted solely because of participation in a peaceful protest movement.

The problem with these sorts of claims is twofold. It is hardly surprising that these allegations have been made – as Amnesty International itself makes clear the sources for all these comments are the protestors themselves. At the outset Amnesty International does use, quite correctly, the word ‘allegation’, but then
all-too-rapidly, often within a few lines, the claims and allegations have suddenly become firm, definitive “widespread violations”: “The response of the Ethiopian government to the protest movement has involved widespread violations of human rights. There has been almost no effort on the part of the authorities to engage with the protestors on their grievances or to put in place mechanisms for dialogue”.

The last point, as anyone who has been following the problem knows, is absolutely untrue. The government, while making it very clear as the Constitution insists that it has no place in internal religious issues, has made a number of efforts to encourage engagement with the protestors and has, for example, also done all it can to support the matter of elections for the Islamic Council.

It is true that some members of a ‘protestors committee’ have been arrested following violent protests, but it is completely misleading to suggest that this ‘committee’ had been “chosen to represent the Muslim community’s grievances to the government”. This ‘committee’ was not chosen nor elected by anyone. It was made up of some of the same small group of protestors who have been orchestrating and organizing the protests, and whose main activity appears to have been to make contact with Amnesty International and other organizations. It was, in sum, a small, self-appointed committee of protestors whose support in the community at large, as the recent election clearly demonstrated, was minimal. This indeed would appear to be why it turned to international advocacy organizations with a reputation for responding to the smallest incidents without bothering to question the political affiliations of the source, to check the origin of the allegations or to investigate their accuracy.

In this case, Amnesty International’s approach has been on the usual circular basis so often employed by advocacy organizations and by those with a political agenda. An allegation is made; the advocacy organization accepts the allegation simply because it is made by an anti-government group which, by definition, is considered, without investigation, to be reputable; the government responds; the government’s refutation is unacceptable, simply because it comes from the government which by definition cannot be trusted…..

In fact, these claims and allegations nearly always come from elements which are politically involved and have an agenda – in this case a political agenda wrapped up in a religious blanket. The fact of the matter, as the Muslim Community as a whole knows and accepts, is that the Government has made no effort to interfere in the matter of doctrine. It has done nothing to encourage, support, impose or advocate the teachings of the Al Ahbash sect of Islam on the Muslim community. Nor has it made any effort to interfere in the elections for the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs apart from a number of efforts to encourage the Council to hold the elections which have certainly been long-overdue. That has been its only involvement. The choice of candidates for the election took place at public meetings of the local Muslim communities as did the actual election where all stages of the vote and counting were held in public. Government involvement of any kind was not possible. Equally, of course, it is true that this sort of public voting did militate against the possibility that a small number of dissidents could influence the voting, and indeed that is largely what happened.

The elections were held in Muslim communities across the country with members first voting to choose their representatives in their respective communities. A week before the vote, there were local community meetings in which participants nominated and openly voted for observers for the election and for committees for the election procedures. This laid the foundation for the open, credible and democratic election which followed. The local communities, under the supervision of chosen election observers and executive election committees, put forward a total of 25 candidates in their respective localities. Those suggested were people believed to have the necessary knowledge and ethical qualities to represent the community’s religious views. Proposers of candidates were chosen at random from among the crowd by hand-raising and had to offer detailed accounts of the religious and ethical qualities of their proposed candidates. All of the proposed candidates were subject to scrutiny by the crowd, and any of those opposed by people present at the meeting were omitted from the list of candidates. The meetings produced names of 20 candidates from each locality, out of the 25 originally proposed, to run for election.

On October 7th, the Muslim communities gathered in their respective localities to vote in public meetings by an open show of hands. Almost all members of the Muslim community participated with an average 90% turnout and nearly 100% in rural areas. The winners of the vote were announced immediately in the presence of the voters. The Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, which reported that any assistance for the electoral process had been neutral, open and fair, said a total of over 7.5 million people cast their votes during the election, a significant percentage of the registered eligible voters.

Those elected went forward to the regional assemblies which in turn elected representatives for the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council whose names were announced in Addis Ababa on Monday this week (November 5th). Sheikh Kiyar Mohammed Aman was elected President of the eleven person Supreme Council, and Sheikh Kedir Mohammed and Mohamed Ali were elected as Vice President and Secretary of the Council respectively. Eight others were elected as members of the Council. Observers identified the newly elected leadership as mature and experienced scholars and religious figures, well versed in religious education, practice and theory. These were all factors taken into account by the voters.

Indeed, there was general agreement in the Muslim community that the process had been carried out beyond expectations, and there was general satisfaction at the very open, fair and democratic procedures. Community elders across the country noted that their members had been satisfied with the process; election participants from different areas reported it was an open, fair and democratic election. There was general agreement that the various Muslim communities had freely voted for the leaders of their own choice and been able to include those they wanted or exclude any candidates they believed were religiously unwelcome for their community or themselves. There was general appreciation that the government had discharged its constitutional obligations with its cooperation in providing easily accessible venues for voting. These had allowed more people than before to participate and had been suitable for the collection of data. There was general agreement that the whole process ought to put an end to any
allegations that the government had been trying to impose the views of the Al-Ahbash Sufi sect on the Muslim community.

Certainly, the authorities have made it clear that they do have a role in keeping law and order. The Prime Minister emphasized in Parliament last month that the government would respond whenever ‘extremist groups’ were plotting unrest. It did this, for example, when 17 people, with “a record of organizing violence in pursuit of an extremist agenda under the pretext of religion” were arrested and charged with criminal activity. Eight were subsequently released on bail; nine were still under investigation at the beginning of November. Subsequently, the police charged two local NGOs and detained 29 people on a number of charges relating to the “planning,
preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts”. Their cases are now before the court.

As noted, Amnesty International’s response to the elections and the efforts to keep law and order, has been to claim that the Ethiopian government had been involved in “widespread violations of human rights,” and to claim there had been almost no effort on the part of the authorities to engage with the protestors on their grievances or to put in place mechanisms for dialogue. As already mentioned this is simply untrue, and it is equally fallacious to suggest that the “the majority, if not all of those arrested, have been detained for exercising their right to peaceful protest.” One or two of the protests were extremely violent (with police killed) and those detained have either been charged and taken to court or released. It is possible that there have been delays in gathering evidence in some cases, always difficult when violent demonstrations have taken place, and perhaps the only valid point made by Amnesty International is that the system of justice is not always as swift as it should be.

Amnesty International then goes on to ‘demand’ that “all detainees who remain in detention without charge must be brought swiftly before a judicial authority [and] “where credible evidence of a criminal offence exists people must be charged promptly, or should be immediately and unconditionally released.” As it happens they are, their rights in detention are upheld and they do get full access to legal representatives, to medical care if required and to family. It might also be noted that police actions and any use of force are always investigated and if admissible and credible evidence of criminal action is proven, those responsible are prosecuted. It has to be admitted that the government does not always bother to keep Amnesty International informed; it does not regard Amnesty International as a sufficiently independent body or one whose use of evidence or credibility is above question. Nor, of course, does it accept that Amnesty International has any proper standing in these matters, sufficient to make such demands on the government or the justice system of the country. Amnesty International has long since thrown away any pretence at balance or impartiality with reference to Ethiopia. Government accounts of incidents are routinely and automatically dismissed, while those of opposition elements are always accepted completely with no attempt to look at the political affiliation of sources or of the possible reasons for the allegations made.

The way Amnesty International comments on events at Gerba last month, making it clear it disbelieved the government account and believed the protestors claims, underlines the point. It states firmly that “Police officers fired on civilians, killing at least three people and injuring others”, while the government “claimed that protestors had attacked a police station armed with machetes and hand guns to try to secure the release of another protestor who had been arrested earlier in the day. The government also stated that a police officer was killed in the alleged attack. However, the protestors report that they had peacefully demanded and secured the release of the arrested person during the morning of 21 October and the protest had subsequently dispersed.” It then quoted unnamed sources as saying that “later in the day federal police, called in as reinforcements, arrived at the mosque in Gerba town and opened fire, targeting people coming out of the mosque as well as others in the vicinity. One man told Amnesty International that he had seen a police officer killed in the ensuing violence [but] other witnesses said they could not confirm any police deaths. An unknown number of arrests are reported to have taken place during the incident on 21 October and more arrests reportedly occurred in the aftermath of the incident, including the arrests of people who spoke to the media about events.”

It is very clear from this account that Amnesty International has not spoken to any officials in Gerba nor indeed tried to contact any critics of the protestors or even any independent sources, and that it has accepted without any qualification any and all of the protestors’ version of events. This, indeed, is the problem with such claims. They are often one-sided and largely inaccurate, based on hearsay, political calculation or, all-too-often, downright invention. It must be emphasized again and again, that such allegations, however they are made and whoever is responsible must be based on accurate facts and properly sourced. If they are not, government and officials cannot respond and correct problems. The failure to offer this option strongly suggests that this is not what is expected or wanted, and underlines the point that many of the claims and allegations are the result of political manipulation and have little or nothing to do with any efforts to improve human rights.
* Originally published on A Week in the Horn, the weekly bulletin of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Nov. 9, 2012 issue, titled “A Comment on Amnesty International and Muslim ‘protests’”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so.

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