Friday, September 30

Caravan Redux

In the post The Caravan Passes and the Dog Barks we talked about a lawsuit filed by Ethiopian government officials alleging defamation over charges of corruption, using all of the organs and powers of the Ethiopian government, against the proprietors of a short wave radio station based in the US and Germany. For a number of reasons we expressed surprise.

First, the use of the legal system of a free society to export controls on free press by a government that denied every manner of freedom of the press seemed to be in rather poor taste.

Second, it set a very bad precedent for all despotic governments because none of them had ever tried this before.

Third, the purpose seemed to be to intimidate and harass a few so that others, would not dare to cross the government. The fact that it was impossible to imagine the government or the individuals alleging harm ever actually carrying through the suit and obeying the legal rules of discovery (handing over all information to the court) heightened this suspicion.

Fourth, it seemed that given the essentially corrupt nature of the governmental / ruling party / elite structure that it would be amazing if the most fair minded and reasonable observers did not assume that there was absolutely no difference between private and public funds anywhere where Ethiopia's rulers had interests.

Fifth, we noted that if every opinion (including those of supporters) on the matter was indeed wrong and there was no such corruption extant - then transparency in government by open international audits of the institutions concerned would prove the government blameless.

That way a principal reason for the lawsuit, the ruining of government 'development partner' relations with the imperialist camp (Western aid donors in ruling party lingo), could be turned into a positive and all would benefit from the resulting confidence.

Most fascinating , we found the whole lawsuit to be a real departure from normal international practice over centuries of history and law and diplomacy. After all dozens of dictators over decades from around the world never (to our knowledge) sued someone in the West for being called corrupt.

One has to wonder why. Apparently the Ethiopian government did not bother.

As a matter of policy this government is not even content with neutrality or even support from Ethiopians out of its clutches. Support or even neutrality imply choice and since choice can by definition change, the govenment maintains a default setting of aggressive intimidation of everyone not directly under its thumb.

The individuals being sued did not go along with the government plan.

They countersued for malicious prosecution and damages and they also prepared suit for all of the government's human rights violations against the families of Ethiopians abroad, many of whom then came forward to provide documentation. Since the government lawsuit had placed the Prime Minister and his government legally under the jurisdiction of a court in suburban Virginia, the PM was faced with the possibility of subpeona.

Even if he was actually immune by virtue of diplomatic status, the potential for legal harassment and loss of face (in far more vicious forms, these are normally favorite weapons of the government against its victims) must have been disconcerting. In addition the individuals the government was harassing assembled an evidently very talented legal team and brought on board every manner of human rights and free press organization possible.

Everyone else, with no diplomatic or head of state / head of government immunity, who voluntarily submitted themselves to the authority of a Virginia court were faced with the issue of the lawsuit's aftermath or any other suits brought against them because of their status in a dictatorship. It must have all seemed rather quickly like more trouble than it could have possibly been worth.

Far too late though, it must have become clear to the government why other dictatorships had avoided the legal systems of free societies while violating human rights for all to see at home. You see, the legal systems in free socities tend to be as free as the press in such places and because freedom implies a reasonable search for truth even if it is not found - despotic government is likely to either lose in the end or suffer damage far beyond any gain achieved.

This analysis from Ethiopian Review makes a point
Meles and his officials are backing away from their lawsuit against Tensae Radio, according to Tensae lawyer Ato Shakespear Feyissa. This proves that the report by Tensae Radio that Meles and his officials have deposited millions of dollars in foreign banks is true, and the radio programs credibility is intact. Tensae's counter lawsuit against Meles will proceed.
So what possible gain did the Ethiopian government get from all of this? The real question may be why no one involved in Addis Ababa's corridors of power ever predicted this debacle. Having millions of dollars squeezed from peasants and from party / government business monopolies to hire world class lawyers and PR people in free countries is apparently not enough to carry out sensible ideas.

The government's legal team in America (the same folks who lost the arbitration against Eritrea in the Hague) must have been shocked by all of this even being considered absent any rational precedent in human history. However, they do what the client tells them to and if the cause is wise or silly ... they still do rather well in the end.

Dagmawi sees the situation quite differently
After listening to the Tensae Lawyer's interview there is zero evidence presented concerning the veracity of the claim published by Tensae that certain named individuals in the goverment had tens of millions of dollars stashed in their name in banks around the world.

Tensae Radio should apologize to the Ethiopian people for broadcasting such lies. How can we condemn Walta and the Ethiopian Herald for defaming Ms. Ana Gomes when the Ethiopian Review is championing the lies of Tensae Radio?

By the ridiculous logic of Tensae's lawyer, if Ms Ana Gomes doesn't sue Walta and Ethiopian Herald, then she is guilty of biasing the EU report to get "half the money from the diaspora."
It is very true that the absence or abandonment of a lawsuit, can not serve as proof of guilt or innocence. That goes for the original charge that tens of millions of dollars were stashed away abroad by the named government officials.

Dagmawi's point (which made us re-write this section of this post) is best understood to us in the sense that the actual problems that can be pointed out with Ethiopian government are so massive that it only serves to unwisely level the moral playing field when charges are made without proof ... and ... it is just wrong to say so without proof anyway.

The Ethiopian Review's point is best understood to us in the sense that the structure of Ethiopian governance is essentially corrupt by design and definition to an unprecedented degree, while the result is absolutely destructive. The Tensae radio lawyer is an advocate for his clients alone, just like the lawyers for the government are and all other lawyers are by tradition and profession - he serves that purpose well.

Therefore, considering the ER point, any assumptions about corruption become fair game, or rather convenient game (as it has been for ethiopundit). To put it all another way - even if no one would be surprised by the externalization of funds, or if all would even expect the externalization of funds by the accused, that does not make it an acceptable fact.

However, that raises the point of the distinction between charges of corruption (or brutality for that matter in coming years) against a government / a ruling party / government - ruling party businesses / their officials / and private individuals. One person can simultaneously or at alternate ticks of the same minute serve in all five categories.

More care should be taken when considering individuals. However, does that absolve government by yet another convenience, this time of individual rights, which it also ignores. Especially when the governing structure makes all actors and even facets of one actor indistinguishable it is hard to posit that individuals are being defended when it is their status in a corrupt system that is the real issue.

Should the absence of a paper trail make us reconsider our view that the whole structure of government - party - business relations is thorougly corrupt? A foreign paper trail would certainly be unpenetrable to all but the national police and intelligence agencies of a handful of first world governments. Search for a domestic one might be met with imprisonment, disappearance or even death - unless a knowledgable defector comes forth with boxes of documents or the equivalent on computer discs.

Dictators generally do not have gentle retirement plans and there is no worldwide Tyrant Protection Program for the deposed - although maybe there should be. So - assuming some externalization of funds seems like a rational excercise even as it may be particularly unhelpful to do so in individual terms.

Mengistu certainly got better advice about filing suit in the West but he certainly sent money abroad even though no one to our knowledge has particular proof. Conversely, the Imperial Government did not send money abroad despite every manner of accusation and assumption.

So ... of course your average modern dictator and his entourage puts money in foreign banks. That is a matter of common sense. An inability to prove so exactly doesn't mean anyone has to pretend they aren't totally corrupt but maybe naming particular names is not cool.

Either way this is the most corrupt government that Ethiopia has ever experienced. That is the main issue.

OK already, enough splitting points and dragging back and forth over the edge of a razor. Beyond the issues of actual theft as particularly alleged it still remains amazing to us as it origianally did, that this all happened to begin with and that it has never happened before with dozens of harshly critical diaspora communities and despotic governments worldwide for over a century or more.

How decisions to sue folks in the diaspora for being called corrupt in a place far beyond the range of an AK-47 bullet, ever made it out of a single meeting calls into question every other policy of the government. It does not make sense to have done so without considering the risks and benefits beforehand.

Beyond the bad policies that enrich the party or lengthen rule, there just seems to be many things going on that are just bad ideas that no one is saying no about.

ethiopundit has more than its share of run on sentences and grammatical or spelling errors - but who cares? The whole lawsuit issue goes far to explain other small points like why so many documents out of a national Ministry of Information or a Prime Minsiter's Office are barely edited and riven with basic errors of written English.

Either no advice is sought in such contacts with the outside world that are out of normal diplomatic channels, or the government is too proud or too insecure to ask for help. It is otherwise inexplicable how given such a massive pool of Ethiopians in Addis who have totally mastered the English language and who come from a culture where the spoken and written word have been spun like gold for millenia, that all writing is not edited ...

... and that submitting Ethiopia's elite to the authority of free foreign courts was not discouraged. All of this is connected in the end. Just wonder to yourself how the arbitration with Eritrea was conducted.

Imagine the gimgema (criticism / self criticism session a la Lenin & Mao) at the aftermath of all this!

... or maybe the opposition will be blamed, or the EU, or Eritrean agents, or Lord Voldemort. Here is an even better explanation - the radio station was just being offered amnesty!


UPDATE: From the International Journalists' Network, 'Ethiopian government drops U.S. lawsuits against journalists' details the charges against the four being sued by the government and their alleged accusations against the goverment officials in question.

The whole thing is worth a read for background but this is the money quote
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in Virginia because they knew at least one of the defendants lived in the area. It is fairly common for public officials in many countries to file lawsuits against journalists who publish critical stories. But for officials to sue journalists from their own country in foreign courts is unusual.

If the lawsuits had proceeded, all the parties involved – including the prime minister, his wife and cabinet officials – would have had to come to Virginia to give their depositions in October. Gregg Murphy, a lawyer for the defendants, said dropping the suits “is nothing more than a delay tactic of basically stopping it right now with the right to bring it back again.
Amazing. The Prime Minister and the elite of a government just up and presented themselves to the authority of a suburban Virginia court. Even if this particular lawsuit is over, the legal precedent is established that the Ethiopian Government considers itself to be under either Virginian, every American or just all international courts.

Given the habit of judges and prosecutors in Europe in particular to entertain lawsuits against folks like Pinochet, it is not a stretch to imagine such courts accepting cases brought by Ethiopians abroad or frankly anyone who wants to do so. After all, there is nothing that courts and lawyers like to do more than extend their jurisdiction and have a bit of fun against tyrants while doing so.

We rather doubt that the Ethiopian government's 'progressive' credentials and revolutionary rhetoric will shield them from the interest of activist courts all over the world. Especially if the crackdown against the opposition continues in its bloody and brutal form, world opinion and politics would readily accept criminal or civil suits against such a government.


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