Country Listing

Ethiopia Table of Contents


Crime and Punishment

The Legal System

Although Ethiopians have long depended on written laws, the criminal legal system observed at the time of the 1974 revolution was of relatively recent origin. The first integrated legal code, the Fetha Nagast (Law of Kings), was translated from Arabic in the mid-fifteenth century. Attributed to a thirteenth-century Egyptian Coptic scholar, it was inspired by the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), the New Testament, canons of the Christians' early church councils, Roman civil law, and tenets of Quranic law. However, the Fetha Nagast applied only to Christians. Muslims who became subject to Ethiopian rule through conquest continued to be judged in their own courts according to sharia law (see Islam, ch. 2). Also, outside the ordinary judicial system, clan and tribal courts exercised unofficial but effective coercive powers, and people rarely appealed their decisions to regular courts.

The Fetha Nagast and customary laws remained the basis of criminal judicial procedure until 1930, when Haile Selassie introduced a penal code, which, although primitive in its application, strove for modernity in its articulation. Unlike the old system, the 1930 penal code set down specific punishments for precisely defined offenses. It was a legal principle that a person who performed an act not prohibited by law committed no crime; nor were acts of omission punishable by law. The code made distinctions among preparatory acts, attempted crimes, and completed offenses. Preparation in itself was not considered criminal, nor were unsuccessful attempts, especially ones in which commission of the offense was judged to be "absolutely impossible." Courts did not inflict punishment if the accused acted out of superstition or "simplicity of mind."

The penal code was strong on retribution, but the courts determined penalties according to the degree of individual guilt. In addition, the courts took into consideration an offender's background, education, and motives, as well as the offense's gravity and the circumstances of its commission. In theory, the courts meted out the most severe punishments to persons of title and wealth on the premise that such offenders had less reasonable motives for criminal action than did persons of lower station. Among the complaints of ethnic dissidents, however, was the allegation that any offense against an Amhara resulted in more severe punishment than an Amhara's offense against a non-Amhara. The new code abolished mutilation but retained capital punishment and permitted flogging. Although more sophisticated than the Fetha Nagast, from which it ostensibly was derived, the 1930 penal code lacked a comprehensive approach to the disposition and treatment of offenders.

In 1958 a Swiss legal expert drafted a revised penal code to meet the needs of a developing nation. A 1961 criminal procedures code, drafted by a British jurist, augmented the 1930 penal code. The former was based on the Swiss penal code and many secondary sources; the latter reflected the influence of English common law.

For virtually every offense listed in the revised penal code, there were upper and lower limits of punishment. The effect was to stress acceptance of the concept of degrees of culpability, as well as the concept of extenuating and aggravating circumstances. Separate provisions existed for juveniles. Nevertheless, the commission appointed to approve the revision repeatedly expressed the traditional view that "punishment should remain the pillar of Ethiopian criminal law."

Following the 1974 revolution, a normal legal process theoretically was in effect for dealing with criminal offenses. Existing parallel to it was a "revolutionary" system of neighborhood justice. In practice, it was impossible to distinguish between criminal acts and political offenses according to the definitions adopted in post-1974 revisions of the penal code.

A November 1974 decree introduced martial law, which set up a system of military tribunals empowered to impose the death penalty or long prison terms for a wide range of political offenses. The decree applied the law retroactively to the old regime's officials who had been accused of responsibility for famine deaths, corruption, and maladministration and who had been held without formal charges since earlier in the year. Special three-member military tribunals sat in Addis Ababa and in each of the country's fourteen administrative regions.

In July 1976, the government amended the penal code to institute the death penalty for "antirevolutionary activities" and economic crimes. Investigation of political crimes came under the overall direction of the Revolutionary Operations Coordinating Committee in each awraja. In political cases, the courts waived search warrants required by the criminal procedures code. The government transferred jurisdiction from the military tribunals, which had been inactive for some time, to kebele and peasant association tribunals. Political trials constituted the main business of these tribunals well into 1978.

More generally, the 1976 revision of the penal code empowered association tribunals to deal with criminal offenses but limited their jurisdiction to their urban neighborhood or rural area. Elected magistrates, without formal legal training, conducted criminal trials. Procedures, precedents, and punishments varied widely from tribunal to tribunal, depending on the imperatives of the association involved. Peasant association tribunals accepted appeals at the wereda (district) level. Appellate decisions were final, but decisions disputed between associations could be brought before peasant association courts at the awraja level. In cities, kebele tribunals were similarly organized in a three-tier system. Change of venue was arranged if a defendant committed an offense in another jurisdiction.

The judicial system was designed to be flexible. Magistrates could decide not to hear a case if the defendant pleaded guilty to minor charges and made a public apology. Nonetheless, torture was sometimes used to compel suspects and witnesses to testify. Penalties imposed at the local association level included fines of up to 300 birr, compensation to victims in amounts determined by the tribunal, imprisonment for up to three months, and hard labor for up to fifteen days. Serious criminal cases were held over, depending on their gravity, for association tribunals sitting at the awraja or wereda level, which were qualified to hand down stiffer sentences. In theory, death sentences were reviewed by government officials, but little effort was made to interfere with the administration of local justice. Tribunal decisions were implemented through an association's public safety committee and were enforced by the local People's Protection Brigade. Without effective review of their actions, tribunals were known to order indefinite jailings, during which their suspects sometimes disappeared, as well as summary executions. On rare occasions, the government would condemn association officials for murder and torture committed in the course of dispensing "revolutionary justice."

The 1976 revision of the penal code also created new categories of so-called economic crimes. The list included hoarding, overcharging, and interfering with the distribution of consumer commodities. More serious offenses concerned engaging in sabotage at the work place or of agricultural production, conspiring to confuse work force members, and destroying vehicles and public property. Security sections of the Revolutionary Operations Coordinating Committee investigated economic crimes at the awraja level and enforced land reform provisions through the peasant associations. These committees were empowered to indict suspects and hold them for trial before local tribunals. Penalties could entail confiscation of property, a long prison term, or a death sentence.

In 1981 the Amended Special Penal Code replaced the Special Penal Code. This amended code included offenses against the government and the head of state, such as crimes against the state's independence and territorial integrity, armed uprising, and commission of "counterrevolutionary" acts (these provisions also were in the earlier Special Penal Code); breach of trust by public officials and economic offenses, including grain hoarding, illegal currency transactions, and corruption; and abuse of authority, including "improper or brutal" treatment of a prisoner, unlawful detention of a prisoner, and creating or failing to control famine.

The Amended Special Penal Code also abolished the Special Military Courts and created new Special Courts to try offenses under the Amended Special Penal Code. Special Courts consisted of three civilian judges and applied the existing criminal and civil procedure codes. Defendants had the right to legal representation and to appeal to a Special Appeal Court.

Data as of 1991

Country Listing

Ethiopia Table of Contents