Twenty two defendants, including four missing senior members of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) have appeared at the Federal High Court 19th Criminal Bench this morning. The court adjourned the next hearing, which will be a defense hearing, until May 10th.
Federal prosecutors have charged 22 members of the OFC on Friday April 22nd with several articles of Ethiopia’s infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP). On the same day the court ordered the police to transfer all the 22 detainees from the notorious Ma’ekelawi, where they have been kept incommunicado for most of the last four months, to Qilinto, a prison cell south of the city’s outskirt under the administration of the Addis Abeba Prison Authority.
Following their transfer on Friday, however, news emerged that four of the 22: Bekele Gerba , first secretary general of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), OFC members Adisu Bulala, Gurmesa Ayano and Dejene Tafa, have disappeared after refusing to take “unknown pills” administered to them by prison authorities upon their arrival in Qilinto.
This morning, Bekele Gerba told the court that the four of them were “kept in an isolated, dark room for the last four days for refusing to take pills which we didn’t know about.” Bekele also told the court they have been denied access to their family members and legal counsel. He then requested the court to arrange for public hearing as per their constitutional rights so that “journalists and family members can attend court hearings.” Dejene Tafa on his part said that he now fears for his safety and the safety of the 21 co-defendants.
All the 22 were arrested in connection with the recent #OromoProtestes that gripped the nation for the last five months. Unconfirmed reports put the number of people killed during the five month protests to more than 400, a figure the government disputes.
This morning a further 16 individuals, all from the Oromia regional state, and were detained at Ma’ekelawi were also brought to the same court. The court adjourned the hearing until this afternoon. It is expected that like the 22, the 16, under the file name of Tesema Regasa, will be charged with the ATP. According to lawyer Wondimu Ebbissa, who is representing the 22 defendants, so far 83 defendants, including Bekele Gerba et al, are held in Qilinto and a further 97 are believed to be either at Ma’ekelawi or the Addis Abeba police prison facility near Ma’ekelawi.
Among the charges the prosecutors have brought on defendants include statements that the defendants have participated in the recent #OromoProtests against the implementation of the Addis Abeba Master Plan, the immediate cause for the widespread protests within the Oromia regional states, the largest of the nine regional states that constitute Ethiopia.
However, a month after protests have erupted, in a rare gesture of concession to public demand, both the federal government and the Oromia regional state have said they withdrew the plan, something the federal prosecutors seem to negate with some part of their charges that indicted defendants for participating in the protest.