Ethiopia: Abduction and Rape--Law Reform and the Case of Woineshet Zebene Negash

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1 Nov 2004

In March 2002, Equality Now launched its campaign against abduction and rape in Ethiopia, highlighting the case of Woineshet Zebene Negash, who at the age of 13 was abducted and raped by Aberew Jemma Negussie in the village where she lived with her mother and grandparents in the south-eastern part of Ethiopia. Two days later she was rescued, and Aberew Jemma Negussie was arrested. After he was released on bail, he abducted Woineshet again and held her for more than a month until she managed to escape, but only after he had forced her to sign a marriage certificate.

In some regions of Ethiopia, abduction is an old cultural practice used to take a girl as a wife by force. Typically, the girl is abducted by a group of young men. She is then raped by the man who wants to marry her, who may be someone she knows or a total stranger. The elders from the man’s village then apologize to the family of the girl and ask them to agree to the marriage. The family often consents because a girl who has lost her virginity would be socially unacceptable for marriage to another man. Sometimes the abductor keeps the girl in a hiding place and rapes her until she becomes pregnant, at which time her family feels it has no option but to agree to the marriage.

Both abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but until recently, Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code provided that in the event of subsequent marriage to his victim, the perpetrator is exempt from criminal responsibility for these crimes. Equality Now called on the Ethiopian Government to comply with the sex equality provisions of its own Constitution and its obligations under international law to abolish this legal exemption from punishment for abductors and rapists. On 2 July 2004 after several years’ deliberation, the Ethiopian Parliament finally adopted a new Penal Code, which inter alia removed the marital exemption for abduction and rape. Stiffer penalties for rape were also introduced. The new Penal Code will become law after it is translated into English, signed by the President and published in the official gazette.

Equality Now has been calling for justice in the case of Woineshet Zebene Negash since March 2002. On July 22, 2003, Aberew Jemma Negussie was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment without parole for her abduction and rape. His four accomplices were each sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment without parole. Although cases of abduction and rape are sometimes reported to the Ethiopian authorities, prosecutions are uncommon and rarely successful. This was the first case in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction. However, just four months later, on December 4, 2003, the High Court of the Arsi Zone sitting on appeal quashed the decision of the lower court and released the five perpetrators from prison.

Woineshet Zebene Negash did not know of the appeal hearing held in December 2003, nor was she given the opportunity to be present. Prosecutor Mr. Asrat Tolcha was however present. He advocated that the guilty verdict be reversed and offered no objection to the defendants being set free. In his decision reversing the original verdict, appeal court Judge Biyo Ube stated that “the evidence suggests that the act was consensual,” without citing any particular evidence contesting the account of forcible abduction and rape that led to the conviction of the defendants following their trial. According to an article in The Washington Post dated 7 June 2004, Judge Ube believed Woineshet was not raped or abducted because the health report was inconclusive as to whether she was a “fresh virgin,” and “no one wants to rape anyone who is not a virgin.” Prosecutor Tolcha reportedly echoed the Judge’s reasoning, further stating, “I think Woineshet was like, ‘Please rape me.’” The Ethiopian Penal Code in defining the crime of rape does not mention virginity or in any other way limit the crime to one that can be perpetrated only on virgins. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, which has been providing Woineshet with legal assistance, has petitioned for a further appeal to address the injustice of the appeal court ruling. A hearing date of 13 October 2004 was set to take place in the Oromia district court, sitting in Addis Ababa, to consider this motion. However, the ruling was postponed by the court until 5 January 2005.

Article 25 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia provides for the right to equality before the law without discrimination and Article 35 proclaims the equal rights of women, including in marriage, and the right to be free from harmful traditional practices. Moreover, Ethiopia is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which requires states parties to abolish discriminatory laws, to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men, and to accord to women equality with men before the law.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Oromia regional authorities listed below. Urge them to ensure that a further appeal will be heard in Woineshet’s case and that the rule of law is appropriately applied in any such appeal. Express concern over the decision of the High Court of the Arsi Zone, which does not appear to have taken into consideration the evidence of abduction, rape and attempted forced marriage of Woineshet, and express concern over reports that indicate that the court wrongly perceived rape to be a crime against virginity. Remind the officials of the government’s obligation under the Constitution and international law to guarantee the right to equality under the law and equal protection of the law.

Please also write to the Minster of Justice, commending the Ethiopian authorities for having amended the Penal Code so that abductors and rapists who marry their victims are no longer exempted from punishment. Ask him to ensure that the law is translated and passed to the President for signature as soon as possible so that these new provisions take effect. Let him know of your concerns regarding Woineshet’s case and ask him to investigate the conduct of Judge Ube and Prosecutor Tolcha in the appeal and to take appropriate measures if they are found to have acted improperly. Request that his office monitors the appeal hearing scheduled for 5 January 2005 and all subsequent appeal proceedings in the case. Also ask him to promote appropriate training for law enforcement authorities so that the law is properly applied in Ethiopia.

Letters should be addressed to:

Mr. Dewano Kedir
Head, Justice Bureau of the Oromia Region
P.O. Box 9156
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-65 14 47

Mr. Tesale Abera
President of the Supreme Court of the Oromia Region
P.O. Box 26110
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-23 44 37

The Honorable Harka Haroye
Minister of Justice
P.O. Box 1370
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-51 77 75

Please send copies of your letters to the Oromia officials above to:

Mr. Junedi Sado
President of the Oromia Region
P.O. Box 101769
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-51 36 42