Monday July 6, 2015 was an important milestone in a court case that has been simmering since Ethiopia’s crackdown on Muslim protestors that began on July 19th 2012. The trial that followed became yet another high profile court case involving the government and a group of individuals; only this time the latter are no journalists, bloggers or opposition political party members; they are no ordinary citizens either. Many of them include members of an arbitration committee who volunteered to seek solutions to bridge the widening gap between the Muslims and the government in Ethiopia that started surfacing in December 2011.
In the months preceding the government’s eventual crackdown on members of the arbitration committee and protestors, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Muslims particularly in Addis Abeba were staging a non-violent sit-in protest every Friday. They were demanding the restoration of the Awoliya College and Secondary School administration sacked by the government in Dec. 2011; a free election without the interference of the government to replace members of the Islamic Supreme Council (Mejlis), again sacked by the government; and an end to the government’s attempt to publish and distribute books which carry a new Islamic teaching called Al-Habesh.
The crackdown quickly turned into a protracted court case that presented another example of how Ethiopia uses its anti-terrorism law to prosecute and convict activists that the government often refers to as criminals linked to terrorist organizations.
By the law of the land the government (through the mechanism of its law and order enforcement machinery) has the right to detain, investigate and bring to the court of law individuals or groups who it deems are posing grave danger to citizens. But what makes the case for Abubakar Ahmed et al a disturbing act of excess by the government is that for the months preceding their arrest the government has recognized and was negotiating with them as duly elected representatives of Muslims at least in Addis Abeba. By charging them with terrorism, it turned yesterday’s negotiators to today’s ‘terrorists.’
Torture and all that followed
This magazine learned that following their arrest until defendants were first brought to a court of law a series of procedural and substantive violations took place. Defendants were subjected to torture that included mock executions, placement in solitary confinement for extended periods of time and deprivation of food and sleep. They were told by their interrogators that torture would become the only standard treatment they will be entitled to unless they confessed and implicated themselves and others in the charges they were accused of, terrorism.
The right to presumption of innocence and public trial
Their basic right to presumption of innocence was severely violated when security agents in collaboration with the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency recorded and released to the public the infamous documentary, Jihadawi Harekat, before detainees had the chance to appear in court. The documentary portrayed the detainees as being a part of a wider network of global Jihadi organizations.
At all times over the last three years during the trial defense lawyers were denied advance information regarding the governments’ case against their clients, incapacitating their ability to prepare for the trial. The right for a public trial of defendants was also violated – a proceeding that allowed breaches and irregularities that would have otherwise been impossible in a public hearing.
The trial was characterized by innumerable procedural irregularities. Major among them were: the use of short clips from post-torture videos as evidence; the identity of witnesses was not verified by either the court or prosecutors, despite requests from defense counsel; one witness testified that he was tortured for about a month before he agreed to testify against defendants – the court terminated his witness account; and in instances when witnesses failed to identify the “correct” person the court ordered the deletion of the entire testimony from the court file.
Violations of the right to counsel
For two months following their detention defendants were not allowed to communicate with legal counsel; and Since September 2014 defendants’ attorneys were subjected to additional restrictions that made their job extremely difficult; defendants’ attorneys were also prohibited from meeting their clients without the presence of prison guards; and documents passed on by defendants to their attorneys were subjected to inspection and at times confiscation without formal process, notice or acknowledgement.
Verdict regardless of caution
The trial of Abubakar Ahmed et al has attracted global condemnation and has seen a sustained social media campaign from thousands of Ethiopian Muslims. In Feb 2015 the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (the African Commission) had issued its “first-ever provisional measures against Ethiopia” demanding the government in Ethiopia to “investigate claims that the [defendants] have been tortured and guarantee respect for fair trial rights in their cases.” Countless human rights activists and organizations have also been expressing deep concern over procedural irregularities. Although Ethiopia is a party to the African Commission the government hasn’t responded to the provisional measures it was requested to. Instead a court in Addis Abeba has adjourned the case until August 4th to convict defendants after it found them guilty of the charges against them on July 16th.
By the time this magazine is in newsstands, the defendants will have been convicted, sadly. But if anything this case represents a gross miscarriage of justice and characterizes the near collapse of the rule of law that Ethiopia must void at any cost.