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

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1 Jun 2005

January 2008 update on the case of Woineshet Zebene Negash:

The Cassation Bench of the Federal Supreme Court in December 2005 refused to hear Woineshet’s appeal on the basis it believed no error of law had been committed by the lower courts. All domestic legal recourse is now closed to Woineshet.  Anecdotal information suggests abductions and rapes ceased when the outcome of Woineshet’s case was uncertain, but resumed when it was clear the perpetrators would go unpunished. Woineshet’s rapist and abductors are still at large and unconfirmed reports suggest the rapist abducted another girl, aged 14, whom he married and now has a baby. Equality Now, in conjunction with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), has submitted a communication to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights claiming violation of Woineshet’s rights under the African Charter. Please continue to write to the authorities below to ensure implementation of the law against abduction and rape and investigation into the conduct of Prosecutor Tolcha.

On  9 May 2005 the new Ethiopian Penal Code finally came into effect, which removed the marital exemption for abduction and rape. Both abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code had provided that in the event of subsequent marriage to his victim, the perpetrator was exempt from criminal responsibility for these crimes. Equality Now launched its campaign in March 2002, calling on the Ethiopian Government to comply with the sex equality provisions of its own Constitution and international law by abolishing this legal exemption. The campaign highlighted 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, Aberew Jemma Negussie 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.

According to traditional practice, a girl is typically 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.

Although cases of abduction and rape are sometimes reported to the Ethiopian authorities, prosecutions are uncommon and rarely successful. In the case of Woineshet Zebene Negash, Aberew Jemma Negussie was sentenced on 22 July 2003 to 10 years’ imprisonment without parole for her abduction and rape. His four accomplices were each sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment without parole, making this case the first in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction. However, just four months later, on 4 December 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, petitioned for a further appeal to address the injustice of the appeal court ruling. An appeal was allowed and the case was heard on 4 December 2004 by the Oromia Supreme Court sitting in Addis Ababa. The Court ruled there were not sufficient grounds to reconsider the case, and it dismissed the appeal. A further appeal was submitted two days later citing serious legal irregularities in the case, including failure to consider the evidence by both the High Court and the Supreme Court. This appeal will be heard by the Cassation Bench of the Oromia Supreme Court on 4 July 2005. In response to letters from the Women’s Action Network of Equality Now, Mr. Dewano Kedir, Head of the Justice Bureau of the Oromia Region, has personally taken over prosecution of the case and has begun an investigation into the behavior of Mr. Tolcha and prosecution procedures in general.

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 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 exempt from punishment. Ask him to ensure that the law against abduction and rape is properly enforced and applied, including through the promotion of appropriate training for law enforcement authorities. Let him know of your concerns regarding Woineshet’s case. Request that his office closely monitor the appeal hearing scheduled for 4 July 2005 and any subsequent appeal proceedings in the case. Please write also to Mr. Dewano Kedir, Head of the Justice Beureau of the Oromia Region. Thank him for initiating an investigation into the conduct of Prosecutor Tolcha and urge him to impose appropriate disciplinary sanctions for misconduct in the handling of this case. Urge him also to undertake training for officials in his office, particularly on the law of rape. Letters should be addressed to:

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

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