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Pictures of some of the 38 inmates as compiled by social media activists and www.ethiotrialtracker.org

Mahlet Fasil

Addis Abeba, April 24/2018 – Judges at the federal high court 19th criminal bench have this morning adjourned a key verdict involving 38 prisoner defendants charged with terrorism offenses in the absences of all the defendants. Today’s hearing was to decide on whether defendants have a case to begin to defend themselves or not against the offenses they are accused of. This is the second time the court has postponed the key decision for another hearing.

The 38 inmates, including first defendant Captain Masresha Sete, a former military officer, and 13th defendant Dr. Fikru Maru, an Ethiopian born Swedish cardiologist, are accused of masterminding the Qilinto prison fire in Sep. 2016. During the verdict hearing on March 12, the judges have said they were too busy to exhaustively look at all the documents and have adjourned the hearing for today.

Family members and three lawyers, who spoke to Addis Standard have confirmed all the defendants were informed by a court letter that their case was adjourned, yet again, for May 08.

In November 2016, federal prosecutors have charged 38 inmates accusing them of “causing fire and beating 23 prisoners and making them burn” at Qilinto prison, a maximum security prison located in the southern outskirt of the capital Addis Abeba.  A fire at the Qilinto prison on September 3, 2016 has caused the death of disputed numbers of inmates and the destruction of, according to prosecutors charge, over 10 million birr worth property.

The case has been dragging in the court since then. Initially the prosecutors have submitted a list of 85 witnesses to testify against the defendants. Of these, 48 have testified while the testimonies from the 28 have been dismissed by the court. However, the prosecutors’ witness hearing have been marked by several irregularities and inconsistencies  including  witnesses’ inability to properly identify suspects during witness depositions in the court.

Five pages of report compiled by the independent Human Rights Council Ethiopia was also submitted to the court detailing gross rights violations against the defendants by prison authorities. The defendants have repeated their plea again during the hearing this morning.

Background

From the get go, the charges filed at the Lideta federal high court 19th criminal bench have contradicted the government’s initial statement that 21 inmates have died of suffocation during the fire and two were killed by prison security while trying to escape. The prosecutors said they were charging the 38 inmates, under the file name of inmate Masresha Sete, “for beating” the 23 inmates and making them “to burn to death.”  The charge also accuses the inmates of having links to outlawed opposition organizations such as OLF and G7 while in prison and conspiring to start he fire.

Details of what caused the fire and the number of people killed have therefore remain disputed. On September 4, in an e-mail message received by Addis Standard, an eyewitness who said he was on guard the morning of Saturday Sep 3, said that “armed prison guards were indiscriminately shooting at prisoners”.  Most of the prisoners were running “frantically to extinguish the fire,” according to the email from the eye witness. He said he had “seen about five prisoners gunned down in the spot by armed security guards from two different directions,”  and added he has helped “18 bodies being taken out of the prison in the late afternoon. As far as I know none of the dead were due to the fire. They all died of gunshot wounds.”

However, an inquiry by the state sanctioned Ethiopia Human Rights Commission claimed that the fire was a “premeditated arson”. In April 2017, the former Commissioner, Dr Addisu Gebregziabher, told the House of People’s Legal and Administrative Affairs Standing Committee that prisoners have smuggled “combustible materials, drugs and lighters,” to start the fire. A charge vehemently denied by all the defendants. The accusation was also debunked from the several witness inconsistencies during the multiple hearings so far.

All the 38 defendants have been charged with other cases before the prison fire and were serving and or being held at the prison during the fire accident. Notable among the defendants are well know heart surgeon Dr. Fikru Maru, who was jailed for corruption and was serving four years and eight months term at the time the prison fire happened. On March 07. the federal Cassation bench overruled the federal Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the corruption charges against Dr Fikiru and upheld the federal High Court’s sentencing, sentencing and a fine of 60, 000 ETB.

Ethiopian authorities have recently released thousands of political prisoners including key personalities, but none of the 38 defendants have received the amnesty so far. AS


ED’s Note: This story has been corrected to remove the case for the adjournment which was stated at verdict on whether defendants were not guilty or guilty. The hearing was to decide on whether defendants have a case to defend or not. We regret the error!

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