11 January 2018

Ethiopia: Federal High Court Reverses Decision to Summon Gov. Officials As Defense Witnesses, Angering Defendants - Sentences Seven On Contempt of Court

Addis Abeba - The Federal High Court 4th criminal bench has today dismissed its own decision to summon high level government officials as defense witnesses in the case involving senior opposition party officials from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).

In its ruling on August 18th, the court issued a letter to summon the high level government officials as defense witnesses for four of the 17 defendants in the case. They are from first to fourth defendants respectively: Gurmesa Ayano, Dejene Taffa, Addisu Bulala and Bekele Gerba Dako. The list of witnesses submitted by the four defendants included Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn; Lemma Megersa, President of the Oromia regional state; Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Secretariat of the OPDO, the party governing the Oromia region; Abadula Gemeda, former speaker of Ethiopia's House of People's Representatives (HPR); as well as Chaltu Nani, Mayor of Lege Dadhi town in the Oromia regional state special zone.

All the senior government officials summoned by the court to appear have missed the three day defense hearing which was scheduled from 26 to 28 December 2017. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's office was the first to send a letter to the federal court stating a "busy schedule" as the reason for the Prime Minister's absence. However, on Dec. 28, the Secretariat of the OPDO Central Committee has sent a letter to the court asking for a new appointment date for its high level officials to appear in court as defense witnesses as per the court's letter to summon them all. The letter also stated the officials were unable to attend the court due to "urgent meeting about the country" that they were attending at that moment.

But today, the judges have dismissed the court's earlier decision to summon the defense witnesses saying due to their demanding public duties, these witnesses will not have time to appear in court for issues that are big and small. During the three day defense witness hearing in December, prison administration officials have also failed to bring Andualem Arage, another key witness summoned by the court as defense witnesses for Bekele Gerba, saying he was a high security prisoner. Andualem was the Vice President and Press Secretary of the opposition, Unity for Democracy and Justice party, who is himself sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges.

Speaking to the judges this morning, Bekele Gerba, first secretary general of OFC, said that it was unbecoming of the court to say that the defendants' attempt to have witnesses as if it has no substance and to dismiss its decision to summon the witnesses. On his part Dejene Tafa also protested the decision saying the court had accepted government officials as prosecutors' witnesses and should have extended the same right to the defendants. Addisu Bulala also told the judges that for two years since they were detained they have "performed the court's drama" but they were not willing to continue anymore. "You may as well drag our bodies to the court," said Addisu.

Contempt of court verdict after protest

The court sentenced all four defendants Gurmesa Ayano, Dejene Taffa, Addisu Bulala and Bekele Gerba, to six months in prison for contempt of court after all of them have fiercely protested the court's decision to dismiss the summon, including singing a protest song.

Three more defendants from a separate file: Ibrahim Adem, Elias Kedir and Addisu Ahmed, were also sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court. The trio were at the court to defend a separate terrorism charges against them after having been accused of links with Patriotic G7. All the three have joined the other four in their protest inside the court room by clapping. When asked by the court, they said they did so to "support their brothers."

Background

All the defendants, originally 22, have spent more than 18 months in jail (and 14 months after they were formally charged) when on July 13/2017, the court acquitted five of the 22 defendants, reduced the terrorism charge against Bekele Gerba to criminal charges, and ordered the remaining 16 to defend the terrorism charges brought by the federal prosecutors.

The court's decision came after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn pledged to release "some prisoners" who are currently being prosecuted and to pardon some political leaders who have already been convicted and are serving their sentences as part of the government's attempt to create a space for a national dialogue. Many have expected the likes of senior opposition political party leaders and members such as Bekele Gerba among those to be released.

Now, even without having to hear from the defense witnesses, the court has adjourned a date to give its key verdict on January 18/2018. AS

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