Four years later, progress for Ethiopians, but uneven - analysis

Two-thirds of reforms implemented, but some key one ignored.

Members of the Falash Mura community attend a prayer service at the Hatikva Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, in 2016 (photo credit: TIKSA NEGERI / REUTERS)
Members of the Falash Mura community attend a prayer service at the Hatikva Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, in 2016
(photo credit: TIKSA NEGERI / REUTERS)
Around four years after the 2015 report by Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor was released demanding major reforms in the treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis, there has been progress, but it has been a mixed bag.
The mixed bag part looks worse this week following the killing of Ethiopian-born Israeli Solomon Tekah, 18, by an off-duty police officer in an incident that may lead to the officer being indicted.
According to the Police Investigation Department (PID) spokeswoman, they hope to wrap up the investigation into whether the policeman’s shooting of Tekah was justified or a crime within weeks – or maybe even within a week – while not cutting corners and doing a professional job.
The probe may be concluded faster than some other high profile cases because there is not a high volume of evidence to comb through.
Most of the evidence comes down to weighing the policeman’s version, that he felt endangered by rock-throwing and was trying to break up a disturbance, against the versions of most other witnesses at the scene of the incident, that the policeman was not threatened and initiated the altercation.
One clock on the investigation is that the policeman’s release to house arrest was set at 15 days from Monday, meaning the court would prefer a decision within two weeks.
But even if this case might be a metaphor for police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis, it is still only a very small part of the picture.
From the most recent government report to follow the implementation of the Palmor report’s recommendations, there is lots of data showing progress since 2015.
According to the follow-report, 34 (67%) out of the 2015 report’s 51 recommendations have already been implemented and another nine (17%) are in the process of being implemented.
What about the eight (16%) recommendations that have not been implemented at all after four years?
Most of these recommendations relate to establishing new platforms to help Ethiopians and combat discrimination through the education, communication and sport ministries.
But there are two significant recommendations the police have failed to implement, even as most recommendations to police were implemented.
The March 2019 follow-up report said the police have failed to take video recordings of interrogations of Ethiopians accused of a felony and that the police have failed to issue their own detailed report regarding implementation of reforms and standout problem cases.
Regarding major reforms implemented by police, the March 2019 follow-up report said a formal directive was instituted for policemen to identify themselves more clearly and without necessarily pushing to make an arrest.
Next, the police have hosted 80 seminars to improve their officers’ cultural understanding of relations and avoiding friction with minorities – though the report did not clarify how much of this dealt specifically with Ethiopians.
Top levels of the police are encouraging officers to close cases relating to Ethiopians, especially minors, if the crime was not serious.
Prosecution documents are being translated more often into Amharic to better assist Ethiopian defendants in understanding what they face in the legal process.
The state is providing more opportunities for free legal representation to address discrimination against Ethiopians and making stronger efforts to refer such allegations to the PID.
Progress has also had ups and downs even through public statements from police.
In August 2016, after the Palmor report had already been released, then-police chief Roni Alsheich said that it was “natural” for law enforcement to be more suspicious of Ethiopians and other migrants than the general population.
Alsheich was responding to a member of the audience who asked why there was more police violence against Ethiopian-Israelis.
“When a policeman meets a suspect [of Ethiopian descent or other groups with higher crime rates], naturally he is more suspicious than with others,” said Alsheich as he both seemed to accept but also disapprove of the phenomenon. “We know this. We have started to deal with this.”
However, Alsheich said relations between Ethiopians and the police were improving due to dialogue and reducing “over-policing” and dropping low-grade cases, in which Ethiopians were arrested because of friction with police and not any other criminal suspicion.
Having to start the reforms from a low-point in relations between the police and Ethiopians has also meant that making real progress is more of a long-term than a short-term goal.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry and a separate spokesman for police did not provide any additional updates on Tuesday beyond the March 2019 report, with the next update expected sometime in 2020.