2 October 2009, Adis Ababa — In the ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression and association in Ethiopia, Daniel Bekele has faced heavy-handed government repression as a prominent anti-poverty activist and human rights lawyer. Daniel has dedicated his life to building a vibrant civil society and strengthening human rights in a country where freedom of expression and other fundamental rights are severely constricted.
After leading grassroots efforts to promote voter education and election monitoring Daniel was arrested following the controversial 2005 parliamentary elections and spent two and a half years in prison on politically motivated charges of conspiracy and incitement to overthrow the government. He and fellow human rights activist Netsanet Demissie were the last two people released after a high-profile trial that originally charged 131 journalists, politicians, and civil society leaders with crimes ranging from genocide to treason.
Although he had an opportunity to secure his early release by joining co-defendants in signing a letter of apology to the government, Daniel instead chose to stand trial and contest the charges in court, testing the rule of law as a matter of principle. He was eventually convicted in a deeply flawed trial in which even the judges acknowledged that Daniel and Netsanet’s civil society activities were legitimate and even commendable.
Since his release in 2008, the Ethiopian government has adopted the Charities and Societies Proclamation, a new law on nongovernmental organizations that is so restrictive as to make the work of most human rights groups in Ethiopia illegal. Human Rights Watch honors Daniel Bekele who, at great personal risk, challenges the Ethiopian government to uphold the civil and political rights that protect all people.
Daniel Bekele made the following statement upon hearing about the award announcement:
“I accept such a prestigious award with a genuine sense of humility. I hold this award in the name of my fellow colleagues working for the promotion of human rights in Ethiopia. I am humbled by such global level recognition of the human rights work in Ethiopia; but it is also a constant reminder of the human rights situation in my country.
Poverty, political conflict and lack of good governance have created a disheartening socio-political quagmire and a very poor record of human rights; however, a gradual transition to rule of law and a peaceful democratic political order is not entirely hopeless. While a constitutional level guarantee of human rights is a positive step forward; the real protection of the most basic human rights remains a daunting challenge. I hope we shall overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges with citizens re-engaging in democracy in a peaceful way.
I thank Human Rights Watch for this award and its valuable work; and I thank my family, fellow colleagues and friends globally for your kind support.”