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News: OLF Chairman visits Electoral Board, discusses need to freely move, release of others in detention

Addis Abeba – In a statement released on 18 March the opposition party Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) announced that its chairman Dawud Ibssa visited the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and discussed issues that were “necessary for the Chairman to freely move as a citizen and discharge his duty as a political party Chairman.”

This came after on March 04 the NEBE said that an inquiry team sent by the Board confirmed that as of 02 April 2021, federal security forces were tightly guarding Dawud’s house and that one was allowed to enter the premises unless they had a legitimate pass from an authorized entity. Subsequently, the NEBE requested the Federal Police Commission and the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) for Dawud’s immediate release from house arrest.

Dawud Ibssa. Addis Standard/Archive

The statement by the OLF cited the visit by NEBE officials which resulted in a letter requesting for his immediate release. Accordingly, on 10 March, Dawud paid a visit to the NEBE’s office. OLF said the Electoral Board was “very well aware” the circumstances surrounding the status of its Chairman and “has full knowledge of it. The Board has noted and promised to work on it seriously.”

The party appreciated “this new initiative to the Board and is hopefully and eagerly waiting to move forward.” Furthermore, OLF also expressed its hopes that the NEBE “would continue to work towards releasing all Oromo political prisoners and facilitate the peaceful operation of the OLF towards freedom and inclusive democracy in Ethiopia.”

On 17 March, the NEBE announced that that three opposition parties – Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) requested for additional days to hold their general assemblies and that the Board was yet to pass a decision on the request.

This was based on NEBE’s 16 February announcement cautioning 26 political parties, 13 national and 13 regional, to convene their general assemblies within one month period of time.

Other senior and rank members of OLF remain in detention

On 09 February this year, the federal supreme court closed the case file of Colonel Gemechu Ayana, another senior OLF official, and four other ranking members of the party after the defense team filed complaints of human rights violations and defiance of court orders by prosecutors and the police. Only 3 of the defendants including Colonel Gemechu was arraigned in court today and the whereabouts of the remaining two defendants are “unknown”, lawyer Milkiyas Bulcha told Addis Standard. 

In November last year, the prosecutor filed an appeal against the defendants in Colonel Gemechu’s file at the federal supreme court six months after he and 13 other OLF members were acquitted of terrorism charges. The prosecutor filed an appeal at the federal supreme court to overturn the decision made by the federal high court. The federal high court dismissed the prosecutor’s evidence that included tapped phone conversations which are no longer admissible in court as per the new proclamation 1176/2012. 

During the next consecutive sessions, the defense team filed complaints to the court detailing the human rights violations their clients suffered due to several unlawful arrests and rearrests, according to Milkiyas. He added that the defense team complained to the court about how the prosecutor collaborated with the police to keep their clients under detention by force for over 6 months defying court orders. 

The lawyers also accused the federal attorney general of failing to dispose of its duties of addressing the rights violations of the defendants while they were in detention. “We demanded our clients to be freed. Our clients were not only unlawfully hailed but were also prevented from meeting their defense team,” he said.  

The defense team demanded that their clients should be set free and follow the case from outside, Milkiyas said, further expressing doubts about the autonomy of the court. The defense team demanded that all those in the justice system from the federal attorney general to the police be held accountable as per civil and criminal code, the lawyer explained. 

The judges then decided to suspend the prosecutor’s appeal and ordered the prosecutor to provide an explanation and launch an investigation into the alleged rights violations. Milkiyas explained that  the court decided that the defendants to remain under custody since “they don’t know who arrested them.” 

“It is odd that the court doesn’t know who jailed our defendants. We will file a complaint at the judicial administration council,” Milkiyas said, adding, “Our clients were transferred to several detention centers including informal ones but currently they are detained at the federal police investigation bureau. We don’t know why the judges closed the file but failed to release our clients” 

 The judges did not set an alternative appointment and the duration of time allowed for the prosecutor to finalize its investigation while the defendants remain under custody is not known, Milkiyas said. “This is a clear violation of local and international laws that warrants disciplinary measures,” he added.  He disclosed that the defense team will file an appeal to the federal supreme court cassation division or judicial administration council after discussing with their clients. 

The defendants were taken back to the federal police’s detention center in Addis Abeba where they have been staying for the last several months. 

The hearings of the defendants in Colonel Gemechu’s file after the reopening of the file in November featured many irregularities including an absence of judges from the trials. Most of the trials were postponed multiple times. At his first appearance after his acquittal, Gemechu had to attend the hearing in the absence of his defense team because they were was not made aware of his court appearance. The hearing was postponed until the next day but the police did not bring the defendants to court on that day either. 

Colonel Gemechu who was previously jailed and freed from charges was re-arrested in July 2020 after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa where terrorism charges were re-instated.  For 18 months, he remained jailed after he was repeatedly granted bail and re-arrested multiple times, and transferred to over 18 formal and informal detention camps without the knowledge of his family and lawyers, Milkiyas said.  AS

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