Although Ethiopians have long depended on written laws, the criminal legal system observed at the time of the 1974 revolution was of relatively recent origin. The first integrated legal code, the Fetha Nagast (Law of Kings), was translated from Arabic in the mid-fifteenth century. Attributed to a thirteenth-century Egyptian Coptic scholar, it was inspired by the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), the New Testament, canons of the Christians' early church councils, Roman civil law, and tenets of Quranic law. However, the Fetha Nagast applied only to Christians. Muslims who became subject to Ethiopian rule through conquest continued to be judged in their own courts according to sharia law (see Islam, ch. 2). Also, outside the ordinary judicial system, clan and tribal courts exercised unofficial but effective coercive powers, and people rarely appealed their decisions to regular courts.
The Fetha Nagast and customary laws remained the basis of criminal judicial procedure until 1930, when Haile Selassie introduced a penal code, which, although primitive in its application, strove for modernity in its articulation. Unlike the old system, the 1930 penal code set down specific punishments for precisely defined offenses. It was a legal principle that a person who performed an act not prohibited by law committed no crime; nor were acts of omission punishable by law. The code made distinctions among preparatory acts, attempted crimes, and completed offenses. Preparation in itself was not considered criminal, nor were unsuccessful attempts, especially ones in which commission of the offense was judged to be "absolutely impossible." Courts did not inflict punishment if the accused acted out of superstition or "simplicity of mind."
The penal code was strong on retribution, but the courts determined penalties according to the degree of individual guilt. In addition, the courts took into consideration an offender's background, education, and motives, as well as the offense's gravity and the circumstances of its commission. In theory, the courts meted out the most severe punishments to persons of title and wealth on the premise that such offenders had less reasonable motives for criminal action than did persons of lower station. Among the complaints of ethnic dissidents, however, was the allegation that any offense against an Amhara resulted in more severe punishment than an Amhara's offense against a non-Amhara. The new code abolished mutilation but retained capital punishment and permitted flogging. Although more sophisticated than the Fetha Nagast, from which it ostensibly was derived, the 1930 penal code lacked a comprehensive approach to the disposition and treatment of offenders.
In 1958 a Swiss legal expert drafted a revised penal code to meet the needs of a developing nation. A 1961 criminal procedures code, drafted by a British jurist, augmented the 1930 penal code. The former was based on the Swiss penal code and many secondary sources; the latter reflected the influence of English common law.
For virtually every offense listed in the revised penal code, there were upper and lower limits of punishment. The effect was to stress acceptance of the concept of degrees of culpability, as well as the concept of extenuating and aggravating circumstances. Separate provisions existed for juveniles. Nevertheless, the commission appointed to approve the revision repeatedly expressed the traditional view that "punishment should remain the pillar of Ethiopian criminal law."
Following the 1974 revolution, a normal legal process theoretically was in effect for dealing with criminal offenses. Existing parallel to it was a "revolutionary" system of neighborhood justice. In practice, it was impossible to distinguish between criminal acts and political offenses according to the definitions adopted in post-1974 revisions of the penal code.
A November 1974 decree introduced martial law, which set up a system of military tribunals empowered to impose the death penalty or long prison terms for a wide range of political offenses. The decree applied the law retroactively to the old regime's officials who had been accused of responsibility for famine deaths, corruption, and maladministration and who had been held without formal charges since earlier in the year. Special three-member military tribunals sat in Addis Ababa and in each of the country's fourteen administrative regions.
In July 1976, the government amended the penal code to institute the death penalty for "antirevolutionary activities" and economic crimes. Investigation of political crimes came under the overall direction of the Revolutionary Operations Coordinating Committee in each awraja. In political cases, the courts waived search warrants required by the criminal procedures code. The government transferred jurisdiction from the military tribunals, which had been inactive for some time, to kebele and peasant association tribunals. Political trials constituted the main business of these tribunals well into 1978.
More generally, the 1976 revision of the penal code empowered association tribunals to deal with criminal offenses but limited their jurisdiction to their urban neighborhood or rural area. Elected magistrates, without formal legal training, conducted criminal trials. Procedures, precedents, and punishments varied widely from tribunal to tribunal, depending on the imperatives of the association involved. Peasant association tribunals accepted appeals at the wereda (district) level. Appellate decisions were final, but decisions disputed between associations could be brought before peasant association courts at the awraja level. In cities, kebele tribunals were similarly organized in a three-tier system. Change of venue was arranged if a defendant committed an offense in another jurisdiction.
The judicial system was designed to be flexible. Magistrates could decide not to hear a case if the defendant pleaded guilty to minor charges and made a public apology. Nonetheless, torture was sometimes used to compel suspects and witnesses to testify. Penalties imposed at the local association level included fines of up to 300 birr, compensation to victims in amounts determined by the tribunal, imprisonment for up to three months, and hard labor for up to fifteen days. Serious criminal cases were held over, depending on their gravity, for association tribunals sitting at the awraja or wereda level, which were qualified to hand down stiffer sentences. In theory, death sentences were reviewed by government officials, but little effort was made to interfere with the administration of local justice. Tribunal decisions were implemented through an association's public safety committee and were enforced by the local People's Protection Brigade. Without effective review of their actions, tribunals were known to order indefinite jailings, during which their suspects sometimes disappeared, as well as summary executions. On rare occasions, the government would condemn association officials for murder and torture committed in the course of dispensing "revolutionary justice."
The 1976 revision of the penal code also created new categories of so-called economic crimes. The list included hoarding, overcharging, and interfering with the distribution of consumer commodities. More serious offenses concerned engaging in sabotage at the work place or of agricultural production, conspiring to confuse work force members, and destroying vehicles and public property. Security sections of the Revolutionary Operations Coordinating Committee investigated economic crimes at the awraja level and enforced land reform provisions through the peasant associations. These committees were empowered to indict suspects and hold them for trial before local tribunals. Penalties could entail confiscation of property, a long prison term, or a death sentence.
In 1981 the Amended Special Penal Code replaced the Special Penal Code. This amended code included offenses against the government and the head of state, such as crimes against the state's independence and territorial integrity, armed uprising, and commission of "counterrevolutionary" acts (these provisions also were in the earlier Special Penal Code); breach of trust by public officials and economic offenses, including grain hoarding, illegal currency transactions, and corruption; and abuse of authority, including "improper or brutal" treatment of a prisoner, unlawful detention of a prisoner, and creating or failing to control famine.
The Amended Special Penal Code also abolished the Special Military Courts and created new Special Courts to try offenses under the Amended Special Penal Code. Special Courts consisted of three civilian judges and applied the existing criminal and civil procedure codes. Defendants had the right to legal representation and to appeal to a Special Appeal Court.
Somali troops in the Ogaden
Detailed information on Ethiopia's prison system was limited. Only generalized data were available on prison installations.
Although the imperial regime achieved some progress in the field of prison reform, most prisons failed to adopt modern penological methods. Government-published figures on prison populations since 1974 were considered incomplete and misleading. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, and a few individuals who survived detention and escaped from the country have described prison conditions in a critical light.
The administrator of prisons managed the national penal system. Each administrative unit--including kifle hager (region), awraja (subregion), and wereda (district)--had at least one prison. Addis Ababa's Akaki (or Central) Prison, considered Ethiopia's most modern penal facility in 1974, was the central prison for Shewa. Akaki had separate facilities for female political prisoners. The largest number of political prisoners, approximately 1,500 in 1989, was housed in Akaki's maximum security section. Reportedly, the government had jailed political dissidents at numerous other prisons in Addis Ababa, including Fourth Division headquarters; the Third Police Station, which also served as national police headquarters and an interrogation center; and the Grand (Menelik's) Palace. Asmera, another center for political prisoners, had penal facilities at three locations. Most police stations and army garrisons also had jails. Each kebele and peasant association operated a jail in its jurisdiction. Association headquarters in each wereda and awraja also had prisons.
A prison farm at Robi in Arsi provided facilities for about 850 prisoners. In 1978 the government proposed a plan for deploying large numbers of inmates imprisoned for minor offenses to work on minimum-security state farms as part of the agricultural development plan. A single institution oversaw the rehabilitation of male juvenile criminal offenders. There was no comparable facility for female juvenile offenders, who usually were placed in the custody of their parents or guardians. In exceptional pre-1974 cases, the authorities jailed juveniles in larger prisons. After the emergence of the Marxist regime, a large but unspecified number of youthful political detainees of both genders were held in prisons and association jails. Many were released after a period of "political rehabilitation."
Historically, prison life in Ethiopia was gloomy and for political prisoners extremely brutal. The so-called process of rehabilitation often consisted of severe beatings, exhausting work and calisthenics, and political indoctrination. A public confession normally was proof of rehabilitation; in some cases, a political detainee's willingness to torture fellow prisoners was regarded as an indication of his penitence. Recreational facilities were rare, and no program existed to assist prisoners after their release. Punishment was the major concern of prison officials. Conditions in smaller, more remote prisons were worse than in the prisons of Addis Ababa, and peasant association jails were worse yet. As part of a program in the late 1970s to expand and improve the Ethiopian prison system, the Cuban government reportedly constructed new prisons that included facilities for solitary confinement.
In its 1978 report on human rights violations in Ethiopia, Amnesty International stated that Ethiopian prisons had failed to abide by UN regulations for the treatment of prisoners. A large number of prisoners might share a common cell. In the Central Prison's maximum security section, for example, Amnesty International reported that as many as fifty prisoners shared cells measuring four meters by four meters. Ad hoc committees--organized in each cell for self- imposed discipline, food distribution, care of the sick and aged, and orientation of new inmates--often communalized food and luxuries, such as tea and tobacco, donated by relatives. Complaints reached Amnesty International that cells were infested with pests and were unventilated and lacking the most basic sanitary facilities. Medical attention was generally inadequate and not even available at all facilities. Even seriously ill prisoners rarely received hospital treatment, and many died of natural causes aggravated by their imprisonment. Cell mates viewed death as a means of relieving the gross overcrowding typical of facilities housing political prisoners during the late 1970s. The authorities usually informed families of the death of their relatives by telling them "food is no longer necessary."
Although conditions in Addis Ababa's Central Prison improved somewhat by the late 1980s, most prison facilities remained substandard. In 1989 Amnesty International reported that individuals incarcerated in government-operated prisons were held in poor and sometimes harsh conditions. However, the report noted that prisons were subject to formal regulations, and there were few reports of torture.
The human rights organization also indicated that conditions in the Central Prison, which Menelik II had built in the nineteenth century, had improved in the 1980s. The prison's 4,500 inmates were allowed regular family visits, and relatives were permitted to send food, laundry, books, medicine, and other "comfort" items to jailed family members. Although the Central Prison provided basic medical treatment, the authorities authorized prisoners to see an independent physician or to seek treatment at local hospitals. During daylight hours, prisoners were free to associate with each other. The Central Prison opened a shop where small items were sold; a nursery and a primary school were established for children who stayed with their imprisoned mothers; and a secondary school was created where prisoners taught or studied. Additionally, prisoners were free to open their own recreational and educational facilities. Despite these findings, however, Amnesty International concluded that the Central Prison suffered from "inadequate medical care, poor hygiene, delays in obtaining professional medical or hospital treatment, overcrowding of cells . . . [and] . . . epidemics of cholera and meningitis." In addition, conditions at other special detention centers were substandard.
In regional prisons, Amnesty International found prison conditions to be much worse than those in Addis Ababa because of greater overcrowding and poorer hygiene and medical facilities. Prison authorities in Asmera, Mekele, and Harer subjected inmates to harsher restrictions than did authorities in the capital. In Harer and other unstable areas, civilian political prisoners often were held in military custody at military facilities under more severe conditions than were found in other prisons.
Emphasis in larger prisons was placed on work during confinement for criminal offenders, but these activities generally were limited to individuals serving long sentences. Priority was given to production, and there was little effort to provide vocational training. The largest prison industry was weaving, which was usually done on primitive looms. The prison weavers produced cotton material used for making clothes and rugs. Carpentry was a highly developed prison industry, and inmates produced articles of relatively good quality. Other prison industries included blacksmithing, metalworking, jewelry making, basket weaving, flour milling, and baking. Those short-term prisoners not absorbed into established prison industries worked in gardens that provided food for some of the penal institutions.
Income from materials produced by prison labor was applied to the upkeep of penal facilities. Prisoners received about 10 percent of the proceeds derived from the sale of items, but typically most of these funds were dedicated to communal projects intended to improve prison amenities. Although prison industries were not geared to rehabilitation, some inmates acquired useful skills. In certain cases, the government permitted work furloughs for some classes of political prisoners.
Most prison guards were military veterans who had received small plots of land in exchange for temporary duty at a prison. Under this system, the guards changed frequently as the duty rotated among a number of such persons living in the vicinity of a penal institution.
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