Exiled Inquiry Commission officials brief U.S. Congress

Inquiry Commission Chairperson Frehiwot Samuel (from left) talks to Congressman Donald Payne as Ethiopian political emigre Mitiku Teshome and Amnesty International's Lynn Fredriksson look on during the briefing held at US Congress November 16, 2006 (Photo: Courtesy of Ethiopian Artist and Human Rights Activist Tamagne Beyene).
The Ethiopian Inquiry Commission was established upon the orders of the Ethiopian Parliament to investigate the killings of peaceful protesters in June and November 2005 in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country following the May 2005 elections. Members of Ethiopia's Inquiry Commission have given their testimonies to members of the U.S. Congress. The former Supreme Court Judge of the Southern Ethiopian nations and nationalities, Judge Frehiwot Samuel, who was also Chairman of the Inquiry Commission, and his Deputy, Judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha, have fled Ethiopia with a video and final report of the Commission’s findings.

Tizita Belachew of the Voice of America (VOA) Amharic Service has the details:

The briefing was led by US Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ), Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Africa and a member of the House International Global Human Rights Committee and Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA), Chairman of the Ethiopia Caucus.

Highlighting the importance of the Inquiry Commission's briefing, Congressman Donald Payne said, “The political situation in Ethiopia has worsened following the May 2005 elections. Elected parliamentarians, human rights activists, and free press journalists are in jail. Ethiopia is a great friend of the United States and occupies a historic place among African nations. The current situation in Ethiopia, however, remains of serious concern, and we have the responsibility to take all measures to forestall Ethiopia slipping into further chaos.”

Concerning the report of the Inquiry Commission, Congressman Payne said, he had expected that the report would confirm that government forces had used excess force that resulted in the June and November 2005 killings of 193 innocent civilians.

Congressman Payne said, "I've argued time and again that the Ethiopian government used excess force against innocent civilians. Many innocent civilians lost their lives in June and November 2005. The Parliament established an Inquiry Commission to investigate the killings. In the course of the investigation, the Commission was able to listen to the testimonials of 1,300 witnesses. The Commission spent several months gathering evidences and interviewing witnesses. A day before the Inquiry Commission was to announce its findings to Parliament, however, the Parliament was adjourned for recess. For this reason, the Inquiry Commission was deprived of its right to present its findings to members of the Parliament. And this was done intentionally. And the plan was to force the Inquiry Commission to alter or reverse its findings.

Last August, a senior Ethiopian government official had told me that the Inquiry Commission had not finalized its work. The Chairman and the Deputy-Chair of the Inquiry Commission, who have been repeatedly harassed and threatened, however, fled Ethiopia along with the full report of the Inquiry Commission. Both officials said they did not want to expose to danger all those eye-witnesses who risked their lives and testified to tell the truth to the investigators.

The truth should be told, and all Ethiopians should know what had happened in the country. On my part, I had the opportunity to watch a video which showed the investigation process by the Inquiry Commission. Today we will show you a part of the video."

Judge Frehiwot Samuel's Testimony:

Initially, the Inquiry Commission membership was proposed to be based on religion, gender and ethnicity. However, most of those who were chosen to serve on the Inquiry Commission were not willing to work, and had excluded themselves from the commission, which was left only with eight* individuals. To begin its investigation, the Commission was mandated by the Parliament to be guided by the following three questions:

a) Has the law been violated?
b) Has property been destroyed?
c) Has the government used excess force during the June and November killings?

To answer such questions, members of the Inquiry Commission started out their investigation in Addis Ababa and travelled to various towns and cities in the country to gather evidences.

All the while, Inquiry Commission Chairman Frehiwot Samuel and his Deputy were receiving phone calls from government officials that were either appeasing or threatening that caution must be taken to make sure that the final report of the Commission would not tarnish the image of the Ethiopian Government.

Judge Frehiwot Samuel said, "There were daily phone calls and face to face discussions to influence us. As the Chairperson, I was personally told to do all my best to reconsider the figures of the people killed."

They promised lavish rewards for each member of the commission, if the findings are in tune with what the government would like see in the final report. On my part, I was frequently asked to report on the disposition of each member of the Commission versus the report of the Inquiry Commission.

However, most members of the commission were of the same opinion about the final report. After several hours of debate among the Commission members, a decision was made based on the three guidelines, and we agreed that:

a) There was no property destroyed.
b) There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade (as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs).
c) The Commission members agreed that the shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protester. For this reason, it was clear that the law was violated, and government forces had used excessive force. The decision was made by an 8-2 vote. The next day after the Inquiry Commission reached the above decision, Commissioner Frehiwot Samuel received a phone call from Hailemariam Desalegne, special advisor to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and Wondimu Gezehegne.

According to Judge Frehiwot Samuel, the calls from the officials were aimed at pressuring the commission to reverse its decision. The Prime Minister's advisor in particular, Hailemariam Desalegne, “warned me that the outcome of the investigation should not embarass the government.” Frehiwot said. Thereafter, commission members were told to leave Awassa town and travel to Addis Ababa to meet with Meles Zenawi.

Meles personally asked the Inquiry Commission members to amend the final report based upon his explanations and directives. For about two hours, the Prime Minister briefed us on how the law should be interpreted. He asked us to legally define the term "excessive use of force," and ordered Commission members to use the Gambella Inquiry Commission as a good example and ordered us to come with another report when Parliament reconvenes (after the long recess) next year. After they left the office of the Prime Minister, Judge Frehiwot Samuel said he announced the findings of the report to those who were eagerly waiting to hear the Commission’s final report, and to some members of Parliament who were deliberately sent home for recess. Some Commission members had suggested that the report be burned. Such an idea was proposed by Dr. Gemechu Megersa, who was recently became the spokesperson of the Inquiry Commission, and presented to Parliament what he called the final report of the Commission.

Frehiwot Samuel told the VOA that Dr. Mekonnen Dissassa, who was appointed as the Acting Chairman of the Inquiry Commission and held a press conference at Sheraton Addis recently was working with Parliament spokesperson Shiferaw Jarso and leaking the Inquiry Commission’s findings to government officials.

Among those who briefed the US Congress was also Berhanu Tsigu, member of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO). Berhanu said, “he was forced to flee Ethiopia after he endured a great deal of suffering, including lengthy detention. The human rights activist said the report of the Inquiry Commission fails short of projecting the gruesome human rights violations that hit the country following the May 2005 elections.”

"For example the report doesn't reflect the 65 inmates who were executed at Kaliti Prison on November 1, 2005," Berhanu told the U.S. Congress. Berhanu asked the Congress to assign an International Inquiry Commission that would investigate the crimes that were committeed in Ethiopia following the 2005 elections.

Lynn Fredriksson of Amnesty International on her part briefed the U.S. Congress on the overall situation of human rights abuse in Ethiopia.

The human rights activist said, “the International Community should set up its own Inquiry Commission, because the report taken out of Ethiopia did not match with the one submitted to Parliament in Addis Ababa.

"The short, 8-page and inadequate report presented to the Ethiopian Parliament has declared that the government had not used excessive force. Amnesty believes that the difference between the two reports should be open to further investigation by a trustworthy and independent Inquiry Commission. This body should investigate the evidence collected by the Ethiopian Inquiry Commission, and announce its findings to the public. Those who fired shots and used excessive force against demonstrators must be brought to justice," Ms. Fredriksson said.

The Amnesty International official warned that the jailed leaders of CUDP-Kinijit and all other prisoners languishing behind bars were being tried based on unjust laws and proceedings. Ms. Lynn Fredriksson said, “it was of serious concern that the United States was using "partnership in the fight against global terror" as a pretext to remain indifferent to the worsening human rights violations taking place in Ethiopia."

“Ethiopia is, in fact, a great partner of the United States. That is clear. But that doesn't give us the freedom to shun serious human rights violations. On the contrary, it should have encouraged us to ask our partners to demonstrate the highest standards of respect for human rights, and in so doing win the trust of the people in the region.”

The other witnesses who were expected to brief the US Congress but failed to appear in person were former Inquiry Commission Deputy- Chair Wolde-Michael Meshesha and a young Ethiopian government victim, Alemzuria Teshome because they were denied entry visa by the US State Department. Judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha sent his testimony in a video casette while the letter sent by exiled Alemzuria Teshome was read out by Congressman Donald Payne.

Alemzuria Teshome, is the young Ethiopian woman whose plight received international attention when her mother, Etenesh Yimam ( mother of seven) was shot dead in front of her and her siblings (in 2005) by government forces as she was trying to protect her husband, a CUDP-Kinijit member who was elected to the Addis Ababa City Council from unwarranted arrest at their home following the nationwide crackdown on members of the CUDP. CUDP-Kinijit is widely recognized as the legitimate successor to the 15-year old tyrannical rule of Meles Zenawi.

The briefing was finalized by a speech from Congressman Donald Payne who admired the Inquiry Commission Chief Frehiwot Samuel for a courage unparalleled by others that he had talked to in the past few years. Congressman Payne said, “You risked death and imprisonment to stand for truth. You deserve a high respect for the courage you displayed to bring justice and a better future for the Ethiopian people."

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government-appointed Inquiry Commission Chairman, Dr. Mekonnen Dissassa was asked by VOA-Amharic service reporter to comment on the remarks made by the exiled Inquiry Commission officials, but he declined the offer.

Note: *The Inquiry Commission membership was finally increased to ten.

EMAIL: webmaster@ethiomedia.com