Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Fourteen More Days in ERCA Corruption Case

This is the fourth time in a row that investigators have requested, and been awarded, fourteen more days of investigation

The Federal High Court's second criminal bench granted yet another 14-day investigation period to investigators of the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC), in connection to the high profile corruption case launched on the tax sector in early May. The bench also granted the Commission's request that detained suspects remain in police custody as the investigation goes on.

This marks the fourth time in a row that investigators at the Commission have asked for an additional investigation period, without affording bail to suspects, since the Federal Police began to arrest a series of high level officials of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA), prominent businessmen, customs officials, brokers and heads of transit companies.

The arrests, which began on May 10 with the detention of Melaku Fenta, director general of the ERCA; Gebrewahed W.Giorgis, deputy director general and Eshetu Woldesemayat, chief prosecutor, now includes 64 people, six of them out on bail.

Prominent businessmen, including Ketema Kebede of K.K. Plc; Simachew Kebede of Intercontinental Hotel; Nega Gebregziabher of Netsa Trading Plc, Monet Plc and Nega City Mall and Meheretab Abreha, the brother of the former TPLF veteran, Seye Abraha, are also included in the list of those detained.

There are seven files currently being heard at court in connection to this case. Except for Kumlachew Yeshambel, an ERCA official who was allegedly caught while taking bribes, no charges have been filed on suspects. The court heard four of the seven files from Monday to Wednesday last week.

The session started on Monday, with the Gebrewahed et al file, which includes Nega, Meheretab and Haimanot Tesfaye (Col), the wife of Gebrewahed.

The list of alleged corruption crimes that these detainees are suspected of, include -halting charges to be made on businessmen for improper use of hotel equipment imported duty free; import of cement using the illegal Franco Valuta method; dropping charges on at least 60 files at the ERCA for undue benefit and hiding evidence.

Gebrewahed, whose name was associated with every count on the list of suspicions, except for hiding evidence, accused investigators of reading out suspected wrongdoings as if they had already been committed, during Monday's session. This whole case is a "drama that they and their bosses have organised," he accused the investigators, a statement for which he was admonished by the bench.

The same list of suspicions were to be read in the Melaku et al case, on Tuesday. In addition, allegedly having the same file audited twice and tax evasion were added to the list. This file includes - Ketema, Simachew and Fekru Maru (MD), who runs Addis Cardiac Hospital. Melaku, reported to have a serious illness, was taken to the Federal Police Hospital prior to his appearance in court. In court, his lawyers complained that his family are still having a problem visiting him in prison, though this was denied by investigators.

As the case continued on Wednesday, it was Mohammed Issa et al and Tigabu Gidey et al's cases (in connection to Nazareth Mille and Dire-Dawa customs officials and transit company managers) that were heard. The list of suspicions in this case was also similar to those read on Monday and Tuesday.

More testimonies need to be collected from witnesses and experts, and documents must be collected, audited and analysed, investigators argued on all four files, asking for the fourteen day extension.

"We are working daily until 11:00pm at night. We are doing our best to expedite investigations," Debebe Degafe, one of the investigators for the Commission, told the court.

Unlike previous times when lawyers would focus their argument on bail rights for their clients, this time it was the pace of the investigation that they gave attention to.

No end is in sight for the investigation and suspects have been detained for a month and a half, they argued. Since the number of times prosecutors and investigators can ask for additional investigation is unrestricted by the Criminal Procedure Code, it is up to the justices to set a limit, they insisted.

"The bench must play a role here, when there is a gap in the law," Tesfaye Lema, Gebrewahed's lawyer, requested.

His argument would be repeated by other lawyers, both at Tuesday and Wednesday's hearing.

Suspects also accused investigators of not doing enough to expedite the investigation process.

"The amount of resources and logistic capacity of the investigation team does not warrant taking this much time for investigation," Tiruneh Berta, the third suspect in the Gebrewahed et al case, argued.

The Federal Police, the Commission and the National Security & Information Services all have enough resources, according to Tiruneh.

"They even have enough manpower for surveillance should I be released on bail, so why is it taking so long?"

Lawyers also insisted that the amount of work left to be done should be stated separately for each detainee.

"There is no rule that states that all of them should be charged at once," one of the lawyers told the court. "If all the files are collected on my client, then charges could be filed separately on him."

The bench took notice of this argument. Before passing a ruling on Monday, it asked the Commission's investigators and prosecutors how many witnesses they needed to speak to. In aggregate there are 74 witnesses and 60 experts that the Commission needs to depose of, the investigators argued.

The bench ordered that the next time they present their case, they should list the amount of witnesses and experts to be deposed and how much of the investigation is completed for each of the suspects.

"As for documents to be collected , it should not take much time from now on, as it could be easily accessed from government offices," Yirgaw Ayche, one of the judges at the bench, told investigators on Tuesday.

Still, the investigators were allowed their additional 14-day investigation without bail for all the cases.

The bench not only put into account the arguments at court, but the investigation files the Commission presents, according to the judges who stated that enough progress can be seen from the file.

The four cases were adjourned until the week of July 8, 2013. Geberwahed et al's case will be seen on July 8; Melaku et al, July 9 and Mohammad Issa et al and Tigabu Gidey et al, on July 10.

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