Feature analysis: Oromia prosecutors charge veteran opposition party leader Lidetu Ayalew with crimes on illegal possession of bulk firearms

Lidetu Ayalew

The criminal charge was filed a day after Lidetu discontinued his defense team saying his trial so far was politically motivated. Prosecutors charged him with Ethiopia’s newly enacted “Firearm Administration & Control Proclamation” under a clause penalizing possession of bulk firearms, although Lidetu was initially accused of illegaly possessing a single pistol.  

By Mahlet Fasil @MahletFasil &

Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane

Addis Abeba, September 17/2020 – Oromia regional state, east Shewa zone prosecutors have today pressed criminal charges on veteran opposition politician Lidetu Ayalew, founder of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP).

Oromia region prosecutors accused Lidetu of contravening Ethiopia’s newly enacted Firearm Administration & Control Proclamation 1177/2020, Art. 22/3.

The criminal charges came one day after he discontinued his defence team from representing him in what he said was “a political trial.” In a letter addressed to Bishoftu city district court, Lidetu said the court should set him free because prosecutors have failed to comply with the court’s ruling to press charges within two weeks, which came to an end on September 16, or comply with the court’s ruling to set him free.

On August 31, the Bishoftu court closed the pre-trial hearing of Lidetu Ayalew and ruled the police’s request to remand and investigate him for 14 more days as “legally unacceptable.” The ruling was passed despite the police’s statement that they were done with their investigations and were readying to give the file to the regional Attorney’s office. However, the court overruled the police’s request and closed the case file. Subsequently, the judges told Lidetu to open a new file to apply for a bail.

In his letter yesterday, Lidetu stated that he has applied for bail in compliance with the court’s ruling. At a hearing on September 04 under file number 11975, the court ruled that the prosecutors had 15 days (starting from August 31) to decide on the case and for Lidetu to stay in Oromia police custody. However, “although the deadline has passed on September 16 I am still in detention without court order,” Lidetu wrote, adding, “I am only waiting for my fate while in detention until the politicians who decided to arrest me because of my political views decided my fate.”

Lidetu was initially detained on July 24 and was accused of coordinating and supporting violence in Bishoftu city in the wake of the the June 29 assassination of Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa. However, during his multiple appearances at the regional court in Bishoftu the accusations against him shifted from that of inciting violence and possession of illegal firearm, to that of producing a document discussing transitional government politics, a political document Lidetu wrote few months back and was publicly distributed and discussed among many politicians and political analysts.

In his fifth appearance at Bishoftu Woreda Court on August 31, the judges closed the police’s case on grounds that there were no bases to charge him based on the allegations, a ruling the Oromia police evaded. “In short, I am detained not because I am questioned on why I committed a crime, but because on why I have the freedom of thought,” his letter from September 16 stated.

Lidetu’s lawyer Abduljeber Husein, Addis Standard at the time that unless charges were established by the public prosecutor within the court’s deadline judges were likely to explore two options: to grant the police additional days to further investigate Lidetu or to release him on bail.

According to Abduljeber, there was no legal ground for the police to keep Lidetu in their custody because the court has clearly stated that the pre-trial file was closed as the police failed to establish charges after repeated request for additional days to remand and investigate him. He also criticized the process and the court’s failure to allow Lidetu to receive a medical treatment abroad for an existing health condition. Lidetu was arrested as he was preparing to travel abroad. According to Abduljeber, Lidetu has repeatedly expressed his concerns about staying alive due to a serious cardiac condition that he was meant to be treated abroad.

EDP President Adane Tadesse told Addis Standard that the party sees the situation “not as such hopeful” as the police repeatedly failed to respect the court’s orders. “We shall persistently continue to look for peaceful solution; the only choice we have here is to struggle in accordance with the law,” he said. He also added that the party was trying to notify the situation to the Ethiopian Human Right Commission (EHRC).

In his letter to the court yesterday, Lidetu stated that any legal proceeding after his experience with the police’s repeated failures to respect the rule of law was “meaningless.” “In circumstances where the rule of law has become a political tool, engaging in legal proceedings to secure one’s right to justice is impossible. From now on I will appear in a court of law to discharge my duties; beyond that I have no interest in engaging in any discourse in the legal proceedings,” he said.

During the pre-trial hearing, the police accused Lidetu of illegally possessing two pistols, but one of them belonged to a family member. The police said the second one was found without legal permit, however Lidetu said it was given to him by then deputy head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) sometime after the 2005 post election deadly state violence. In a subsequent hearing, police brought a statement from NISS in which it denied issuing permit for possession of the pistol by Lidetu and the pistol was registered under the name Isayas Wodegiorgis, the person from whom Lidetu received the pistol.

Now Lidetu is indicted with a specific clause penalizing the illegal possession of “bulk firearms.” According to Ethiopia’s newly enacted Firearm Administration & Control Proclamation 1177/2020, Art. 22/3 under the “Criminal Liability” clause, the proclamation states that if a crime is committed “with bulk firearm, he/she shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment of between eight to twenty (8 -20) years and a fine between 100,000 – 200,000 (hundred thousand to two hundred thousand) Birr.”

But according to Mehari Gebru, a former judge “the legal provision mentioned has no relation to the facts of the crime Lidetu is charged with.” He told Addis Standard that “Article 22/3/ is applicable on a person who unlawfully holds bulk of firearms. Bulk firearms is defined under 2 /10/ as two or more firearms,” Mehari said, “if that is the case I can say he is charged with irrelevant provision. I think the police intentionally brought such non-bailable provision so that the court will prohibit Mr Lidetu the right to bail.”

Abduljebar told Addis Standard his defense team will file an appeal against the charges on the bases that the provision doesn’t apply on their client and therefore violates Liedtu’s right for a fair trial. The hearing has continued this afternoon. AS

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