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Capital Punishment in Ethiopia

As part of its ongoing review of the death penalty in Sub-Saharan Africa, Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its report on the death penalty in Ethiopia.

The death penalty is rarely applied in Ethiopia, but there is considerable resistance to the prospect of abolishing capital punishment, and in the past few years Ethiopia reaffirmed its commitment to the death penalty before the UN. Since 2007, the UN General Assembly has voted four times in favor of a resolution to impose a global moratorium on executions—and with each successive resolution, more states have joined the ranks of those opposed to the application of the death penalty. Despite having only carried out two executions in the past sixteen years, Ethiopia is among a minority of states to have voted against all four Resolutions – along with the states which have the highest execution numbers in the world, such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. (A favorable vote was recorded in 2008 but the Ethiopian delegates later declared that there had been an error and that they had intended to vote against.)

The last two executions in Ethiopia were carried out in 2007 and 1998 respectively. Both executed prisoners had been convicted of assassinating a high ranking government or military official. It is entirely possible that the political ramifications of these offenses were decisive in the authorities’ decision to enforce the death sentences. Meanwhile, however, Ethiopian courts continue to hand down death sentences for offenses which fall short of such exceptional circumstances.  In addition to murder, the criminal code mandates the death penalty for aggravated robbery (even when it doesn’t lead to death), treason and espionage, and military offenses.  Ethiopian courts hand down death sentences almost every year and we estimate that there are currently around 120 prisoners under sentence of death.

Based on the country’s recent record, it is likely that the majority of these death sentences will not be carried out. For the country’s growing number of death row inmates, this may mean a reprieve, but it also means a de facto sentence of indefinite imprisonment. Year after year, under life-threatening conditions of detention, death row inmates in Ethiopia – as in many countries with de facto moratoria on executions – face a future in an uncertain limbo between life and death.