11 July 2007

Ethiopia: Seeye Abreha Out From Jail

Seeye Abraha, former strongman of the TPLF, made his way out of jail today, June 11, after spending six years there, accused of involvement in grand corruption. He was released a day after the Federal Supreme Court sentenced him for five years imprisonment and 500 Br fine.

He was not the only one to have received sentences on Tuesday, June 10, 2007.

Tamrat Layne, prime minister during the transitional period, was also served a three-month sentence. Both former senior government officials were accused by the Federal Ethics and Anticorruption Commission of abuse of office in aiding their associates gain benefits in accessing bank loans, acquiring trucks and buying state properties from the government through privatization.

This is a case that has been long fought following the top party leadership rupture in the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) in early 2000. Coming out after a bloody conflict with Eritrea, some members held the view that a threat in the leadership was to surrender the party to foreign 'imperialist' interests. This group included Seeye, while others who still hold power today, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, argued that the ruling party was sinking into decadence, describing it at the time as transformation into Bonapartism. They accused some members of the party leadership of involvement in grand corruption.

It is following this unprecedented rift within the TPLF that Seeye was arrested and accused of abuse of power in order to benefit his brothers, as the Commission filed charges in July 2002.

Tamrat was accused of helping a businessman, Kahsay Abay, import five used trucks without paying duties in 1992. Kahsay, whose case has been tried in abstention, was sentenced to serve six years in jail. Tamrat was sentenced to an 18-year term in 1997 after he was convicted of abuse of power. He was charged by prosecutors from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for the Commission was not established then and the country did not have anticorruption legislations.

The Supreme Court said, however, that had this new charge by the Commission been brought against Tamrat at the time, the additional sentence would have been three months.

Tamrat was the founder and leader of the former Ethiopian People Democratic Movement (EPDM), member of the alliance in the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The party has since changed its name to the Amhara National Democracy Movement (ANDM), after the EPRDF took power.

Seeye, who was one of the founders of TPLF and later defence minister during the transitional period, was charged on two counts; he was accused of pressuring the state owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) to release loans to his brother, Mihretab Abraha, and helping him get a 19pc discount when the latter acquired 15 trucks from AMCE, a joint venture trucks assembly plant where the state controls 30pc.

The Supreme Court, however, dropped the first charge last week, while it convicted Seeye on the charge that he helped his brother to get the discounts on seven of the 15 trucks. Mihretab was sentenced to five years imprisonment and a 1,000 Br fine.

Prosecutors are not happy about the ruling.

"For us, our main charge against Seeye was his abuse of power in influencing the CBE in order to help his brother get a loan to buy trucks," Abuhay Guade, chief prosecutor of the Commission, told Fortune. "We are not happy that the Court dropped this charge."

The Abraha family has another embattling brother.

Assefa Abraha, Seeye's younger brother and former chairman of the once Ethiopian Privatisation Agency, received a sentence of nine years imprisonment, while the former general manager of the Agency, Beshah Azmte, was sentenced to eight years behind bars. The businessmen, Fitsumze'ab Asgedom and Heraier Behesnilian, were also charged along with Assefa and Beshah, with Fitsumze'ab, publisher of The Monitor, receiving a five-year term. However, the sentence on Heraier, a major shareholder of Hagbes Plc, importer of vehicles, generators and machineries, remains to be read to the jury as he is abroad for medical treatment.

In the case of Fistumezeab, brother-in-law to Assefa, the Commission accused them of involvement in corruption when transferring ownership of Harar Printing Press, Gulele Soap Factory and Taitu Hotel; they were convicted only on the sale of the soap factory. The Court also has found them guilty of providing unlawful advantage to Heraier in the sale of Debre Zeit Flour Mill.

However, none of them but Tamrat will remain behind bars either because they have been jailed for over five years during the time of their litigation or they will be released on probation, expect family members.

"We need to review a copy of the decision before we state our position on the sentences, considering the charges we had made before a week," the Chief Prosecutor told Fortune.

Kalayu Mehari, attorney for Abraha's family, also declined to comment on the ruling before reading a copy of the decision.

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