An international human rights watchdog has warned that Sudan and Ethiopia are unlikely to hold free and fair elections planned for April and May respectively due to political repression by government forces.
In reports released in Nairobi on Wednesday clearly timed to send a statement ahead of the polls, Human Rights Watch accused the two governments of gross violation of human rights.
The agency said studies conducted between November 2009 to March 2010 in Sudan found that both the Government of National Unity and the Government of South Sudan have been restricting freedoms critical to a fair poll, including freedoms of expression, assembly press, and equal access to the media.
“Conditions in Sudan are not yet conducive for a free, fair, and credible election,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the situation it is unlikely that the Sudanese people will be able to vote freely for leaders of their choice.”
On its part, Ethiopian government was accused of waging sustained attack on political opponents, journalists and rights activists.
The agency says the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic has been suppressing opposition supporters by withholding services such as agricultural inputs, loans and job opportunities. The government has also enacted laws that gag the media.
“Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia,” said Gagnon.
But the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi denied the claims and accused the agency of being used to discredit the polls.
Mr Yelibu Lijalem, the media man at the embassy said the agency released a similar report two weeks before the 2005 elections. “The reports are being written deliberately to blackmail and tarnish Ethiopia’s human rights record.”
Ethiopian government of Melese Zenawi is holding parliamentary elections on May 23.
And, across the border, Sudan is scheduled to hold a general election in both north and south from April 11 to 18. The election is a milestone in the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to Sudan’s civil war.
But the watchdog declared that President Omar-Al-Bashir was unfit to run for re-election because the International Criminal Court wants him arrested over war crimes committed in Darfur.
“He is a fugitive from justice,” Gagnon said. “He should be in The Hague answering to charges of heinous crimes.”
In the north, the authorities have been accused of detaining opposition supporters and breaking up gatherings.
The watchdog claimed that in one incident on March 14, two armed men arrested Abdallah Badawi, an activist with the group Girfina (“We Are Fed Up”) in Khartoum and severely assaulted him.
“They used sticks and pipes to beat me on my back and they put a pistol to my head and pretended to shoot it,” he said.
Things are not any different in the south where intimidation, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of those opposed to the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement have been reported.
On February 18, security officials arrested members of the opposition party, SPLM-DC - Denis Yor, Priyjwok Ajawin, and Amjad Marino - at Juba Airport and took them to a military detention centre where they spent the night before being released without charge.
There is also concern over intimidation of journalists. The agency cited a case in which the Press Council, a government regulatory body, summoned two editors in March regarding articles critical of President Omar al-Bashir.
In another clear case of interference, authorities removed an article on Darfur from Sudani newspaper written by columnist Haj Warrag. The media environment has also considerably deteriorated in South Sudan. For example, on March 3, security officials stormed the offices of Bakhita FM, a radio station run by the Catholic Church, and Liberty FM, a private radio station, and arrested two directors.
Liberty FM had aired an interview with the campaign manager of an independent political candidate in Juba.
And in January, security agents reportedly arrested Cyrocco Mayom, a journalist for the Juba Post, and beat him for three days. Mayom was accused of helping a journalist from Northern Sudan, whom the security agents accused of being a spy.
“For a free, fair, and credible election, it is essential that all journalists and media organisations are allowed to operate freely,” Gagnon said.