It has now been seventy days since the “preemptive attack” carried out by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front led Tigray Special Police and Militia squared off the region against the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Amhara Special Police and Militia in one of the most visible clashes within Ethiopia in a very long time. Even though the Tigray Special Forces and Militia were able to take the conflict into the last week of November, on 28 November 2020 the Federal government announced that the third and final stage of the operation was completed. On 2 December 2020, the Federal Police entered the city of Mekelle as part of the “law enforcement operation” launched by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (PDH) on 4 November 2020.
Following that, the next step of the operation in the northern region of the country was identified as the apprehension of key TPLF leadership and accomplices. The Ethiopian National Defence Forces started to search for said fugitives of law - as referred to by the government - as well as announcing a ten million birr reward to whomever tips the governments over the location of leadership of the TPLF. Since then, whilst there are a number of TPLF leadership at large including former President of the Tigray National Regional State of Ethiopia Debretsion Gebremichael (PHD) and Spokesperson of the TPLF Getachew Reda, a number of notable members in the TPLF’s leadership structure have been apprehended on several occasions.
Some of these names include influential members of the TPLF, Sebhat Nega - who was apprehended on 8 January 2021 alongside his wife Lieutenant Colonel Tseadu Rich in a ravine which was difficult to reach, according to Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew. In addition to that, ENDF deserters Colonel Kinfe Tadesse and Colonel Yemane Kahsay, former Regional Ombudsman Amdemariam Tessema Tewolde, Head of Logistics for the Tigray Regional Forces Commander Berhe Girma and an unknown individual named Asgede G/ Christos were apprehended alongside Sebhat and his spouse. Furthermore, on 11 January 2021 the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation announced that nine captured TPLF leaders including former President and Deputy President of the Tigray Regional State Abay Woldu and Abrham Tekeste (PHD) respectively were transferred to the Federal Police upon arriving in Addis Ababa. The Head of the Third Brigade in the 25th Division of the Eastern Command of the ENDF, Captain Seyoum Turbo also assured the public that the ENDF remains committed to apprehend all TPLF leadership in the recent future. It may also be recalled that on 2 December 2020, a former speaker of the House of Federations also surrendered to the ENDF as well as the government announcing the capture of members of the TPLF Special Forces on several occasions.
As the armed conflict seems to have reached an end in the Tigray Region, the government has identified bringing perpetrators to justice and rebuilding the Tigray Regional State of Ethiopia as its next priority. At this juncture, therefore, Addis Zeybe has chosen to express its position on the manner in which this has to be done, from a human rights perspective. In the following editorial, Addis Zeybe argues that whilst it believes whoever committed the crimes alleged against the TPLF leadership must be brought to justice, it is also important that such justice is rendered in a legitimate manner. The rights of the accused, the right of the public to information and the prohibition of torture as well as inhumane, degrading treatment under all circumstances must be observed, even for those that are currently public enemy number one. The government must guarantee such rights even to the leadership of the TPLF, who at the moment are allegedly associated with incidents of conflict in different parts of the country. Despite its appreciation of the interest of national security and the objectives of the military operation depending on confidentiality, Addis Zeybe also calls on the government to share as much information as possible regarding the status of apprehended individuals to the public as well.
There are several justifications for this potentially unpopular position assumed by Addis Zeybe. In the interest of brevity, three will be discussed.
Breaking the norm
The first justification for the above position assumed by Addis Zeybe relates to the country’s history and norm of punishing previous leaders of the nation. Throughout its modern political history, more visibly in the when the Derg and the EPRDF assumed power, new regimes have rendered harsh violations of human rights against previous leadership. One of the first steps of the communist regime of the Derg was the assasination of sixty previous leaders after it assumed power. Its successor, the TPLF led EPRDF also took revengeful decisions against the Derg leadership upon assuming power in 1991. Addis Zeybe believes that the Abiy administration, which despite the deteriorating humanitarian as well as peace and security concerns of the country, has showcased an improved commitment to human rights must break this cycle of the country.
The Law is Enough
The second reason is because Addis Zeybe believes both the criminal and military laws of the country are enough to bring about the required justice in the country. It believes that there are enough provisions within the Ethiopian legal system to correct crimes as serious as treason. Therefore, should the Abiy Ahmed administration follow proper procedural rules in the country’s criminal law system, it can deliver legitimate justice against captured TPLF leadership in line with domestic, regional and international standards related to the rights of the accused. It is also an opportunity for the Federal government to break the emerging norms of violations as regards to the rights of the accused in Ethiopia.
This point also relates to the legitimacy of the “law enforcement operation” that had been active for the past six months in the northern region of Ethiopia. While a human right abusive procedure of rendering justice is what the international community is expecting, the Abiy administration has the opportunity to showcase a departure from the norm without risking impunity in the process. The objectives of the operation that has resulted in the capture of TPLF leaders must also transfer to the justice system of the country, which is now tasked with the nominal task of deciding the fate of detained TPLF leadership.
To conclude, one of the key allegations against the TPLF leadership is gross and systematic violations of human rights in the country for over three decades. The TPLF has also been accused of perpetrating the killing of several innocent civilians and public figures since the introduction of Abiy’s “reformist” administration. These past engagements of the TPLF coupled with the public rage following what the TPLF called “an act of preemptive self -defence” against the ENDF forces based in the region, have created a sense of disdain and anger in many Ethiopians including government authorities. However, Addis Zeybe contends that even the “junta” is entitled to basic human rights because such rights are solely dependent on humanity. In other words, because human rights entitlements are guaranteed not to good humans but to all, the government must make sure such entitlements are observed at every stage of the trial of the TPLF leadership.