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Hundreds of suspects undergoing trial were released this week from prison out of the 528 leaders of political parties and other individuals undergoing the government said would be released following its decision to withdraw criminal charges against them. The move comes on the heels of the statement issued at the end of December last year by the Executive Committee of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) at the conclusion of its 17-day long meeting. A step in the right direction the decision to free the suspects is welcome and expected to augment the process of forging national consensus anchored in the rule of law. But even as citizens who committed crimes knowingly or otherwise are granted pardon and amnesty it is imperative to take measures which inspire Ethiopians to join hands so as to resolve the political crisis their beloved nation is reeling from. Chief among these is to strengthen law enforcement activities and generally uphold the rule of lawnationwide. Let’s touch on some important issues as they relate to the rule of law.

The constitution of Ethiopia enshrines provisions affording protection to fundamental human rights. For instance, articles 14, 15 and 16 provide that every person hastheinviolable and inalienable right to life, the security of person and liberty, that no person may be deprivedof his life except as a punishment for a serious criminal offence determined by law and that everyone has the right to protection against bodily harm. Sadly it has become far too common to see these rights routinely violated. Many police officers physically abuse suspects during the course of detaining them even when they offer no resistance. As an act which not only sullies the reputation of the institution and law-abiding officers, but also undermines the rule of law and thereby harms the national interest such infringement of basic right needs to be stopped immediately.

Article 18 of the constitution prohibits inhuman treatment. It stipulates that everyone has the right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Nevertheless, countless persons remanded to custody on court order regularly complain that they are subjected to physical and mental torture. A recent report published by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission attests to this fact. Article 21 sets out the rights persons held in custody and convicted prisoners are entitled to. It states that theyhave the right to treatments respecting their human dignity. It also states that they shall have the opportunity to communicate with, and to be visited by, their spouses or partners, close relatives, friends, religious councilors, medical doctors and their legal counsel. Unfortunately, grievances that these rights are flouted on a daily basis abound. If nothing of substance has been done to date to enable the free exercise of such rights how can the government and the people be on the same wavelength? Much needs to be done to rectify this aberration.

The EPRDF and the administration it heads are more than ever before duty-bound to uphold the rule of law. The rule of law is not undermined only through practices which violate written laws though. Enacting laws curtailing the rights guaranteed by the constitution has a similar effect as well. The mass media and anti-terrorism proclamations, which were issued in the wake of the contentious 2005 general elections, are generally deemed to be draconian and to have been used to stifle freedom of expression and association. The anti-terrorism legislation is presently a subject of negotiation between the EPRDF and opposition parties. The ruling party is expected to make its position clear anytime soon on the constitutionality issues of the law that opposition parties have raised as well as provisions which they have proposed be amended, repealed and added. It is to be recalled that the leaders of the four member parties of the EPRDF acknowledged in a presser they gave last week days after the conclusion of the meeting of the Front’s Executive Committee that the leadership took full responsibility for the political crisis rocking Ethiopia and vowed to uphold the rule of law. Given that the flagrant flouting of the rule of law is the primary factor behind the unrest the country has been experiencing for over two years nowit is incumbent on all stakeholders to enforce the rule of law their number one priority.

Ethiopia needs to ramp up efforts to create strong and dependable institutions in conjunction with instituting an effective governance system with a view to bring about structural transformation. Then institutions of democracy will thrive and be able to properly discharge their obligations. Creating a government bureaucracy which serves the nation in accordance with the rule of law rather than that of certain individuals or groups has multi-faceted benefits. Aside from curbing misuse of power and ensuring that the government and citizens abide by the law it also it fosters democracy, justice, peace and stability. This is why it is of the essence that the government continues with making gestures which contribute to bridging the divide between it and the people. Otherwise, the consequences are bound to be dire for everyone.

It’s not difficult to extricate Ethiopia from the political quagmire it finds itself in. All it requires is goodwill, a sincere belief that the lust for power or self-enrichment must not jeopardize the survival of the nation and most important of all a willingness to submit to the rule of law. The 100 million-plus people of Ethiopia can steer on the path to development and prosperity when the age-old “might is right” mentality gives way to a widely shared vision that aspires to see a united and peaceful nation founded on the free expression of the will of citizens. If this aspiration is to be realized it is vitally important to eliminate any and all practices undermining the rule of law.

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