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News update: Inside the trial of Ethiopia’s opposition politicians

From top left : Jawar Mohammed, Eskinder Nega, Hirut Kifle, Bekele Gerba & Lidetu Ayalew. Pictures: Addis Standard/Social Media/Ezema/Agencies

by Mahlet Fasil @MahletFasil

Additional reporting and editing: Medihane Ekubamichael

July 29: Jawar Mohammed

Addis Abeba, July 30/2020 – Jawar Mohammed, of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) has appeared in Federal First Instance Court at Lideta division for the third time since his first arrest on June 30.

Tulli Bayissa, member of Jawar’s defense team told Addis Standard that the investigating police have brought to the court new allegation accusing Jawar of eavesdropping high level officials using “private satellite equipment” which was confiscated from Jawar’s residence as police exhibit. The police told the court that the equipment were prohibited to be in possession of private citizens and were imported into the country illegally.

In addition to that the police also added fresh accusations against Jawar and said that its investigating team compiled evidence linking Jawar and Oromia Media Network (OMN). The police alleged that OMN was engaged in instigating communal and religious violence between different ethnic and relegious groups, which resulted in the death of 190 civilians and the injuries of more than 137 people, the burning of 44 hotels, and 328 private residences, 199 commercial establishments and two statues, among others. The police also brought additional accusation that Jawar has caused the death of four people in Burayu.

The defense team denies all the accusations. In addition Jawar told the judges that barring independent media from attending the pretrial hearing while allowing only government owned and affiliated media was allowing the later to broadcast information from the government’s side only, thereby unjustly influencing public opinion. The judges have dismissed the argument and said that the media that are allowed to report were reporting duly and that the court was under no influence.

The police said they didn’t finish their investigations and requested the court for 14 more days to remand and further investigate Jawar as well as conduct forensic investigations of the alleged “private satellite equipment” but judges granted them with 12 more days.

The defense team objected police’s accusations against Jawar. According to Tulli, Jawar himself told the court that since his return from exile along with religious leaders and elders, he has been reconciling ethnic communities who were victims of previous violence such as the Somali and Oromo communities in eastern Ethiopia. He also said spoke of his role in helping the efforts of the reconciliation between the federal and Oromia regional state government on one side and the armed members of Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in western and southern Oromia, which resulted in the disarmament of more than 100 armed members of the armed group. He also told the judges that the trial was, similar to the trial of other political figures such as Lidetu Ayalew and Eskinder Nega, politically motivated and needed to be resolved with dialogue and not through arrests and prosecutions.

The judges have dismissed the defense team’s argument on the grounds that this was purely a legal matter and hence not related to political arguments and granted the police additional 12 days to remand and investigate Jawar. Judges have adjourned the next hearing to be held on August 11, 2020.

July 29: Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega, founder and leader of the opposition party Balderas for Genuine Democracy (Baleras) appeared at the Federal first instance court at Lideta division for the third time. The court thereby allowed police for additional 9 days of investigation.

Eskinder is held in custody accused of organizing youth groups who were allegedly involved in the the violence in Addis Abeba which resulted in the death of civilians and the destruction of properties in the aftermath of the assassination of the renowned Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa.

Henok Aklilu, his defense lawyer told Addis Standard that the police said that their investigations were not completed and requested yet additional 14 days to remand and investigate Eskinder.

Police’s request was objected by the defense team as well as Eskinder who argued that the police were not doing considerable works rather intimidating the accused by coming up with tediously redundant accusation which would not require such days. Eskinder also argued that the pretrial should be open to independent media and said that his judges were “the people of Addis Abeba.”

The police have already brought Eskinder and his deputy Sintayehu Chekol to the Federal First Instant Court First Arada Branch on July 02 and were granted 14 days to remand and investigate both. However, Eskinder was brought to the court alone as file was already separated.

After listening to both sides, the court permitted 9 more days to the police. Judges also responded to Eskinder’s appeal to allow independent media if the complaint could be presented to the court. The judges adjourned the next hearing to be on August 7, 2020.

In a separate development, Eskinder has brought charges against police office that the accused of physically assaulting him during his arrest. Henok said Eskinder has already deposited his testimony against the police following the court’s ruling on July 17 for for investigation into Eskinder’s accusations.

July 27: Bekele Gerba

On July 27 the federal police crime investigation team has, for the third time, requested 14 more days to remand and investigate Bekele Gerba, member of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) leadership. Bekele was one of the 35 individuals detained on June 30 after the police accused them of hijacking the body of slain Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa.

In a subsequent statement the police also accused Bekele of using his phone to coordinate the violence that broke out in Oromia in the aftermath of the assassination of the prominent artist Hachalu Hundessa.

Following Bekele Gerba’s appearance at the Federal first instance court at Lideta division trial, the court allowed police for additional 8 days of investigation. This is the third time the police were given a green light from the court to remand and investigate Bekele. He was first brought to the same court on July 02 and July 13 during which the police requested and were given 14 more days.

Misganu Muleta, a member of the defense team for Bekele, told Addis Standard that during the pretrial hearing on July 28, the Federal Police crime investigation team explained to the court the details of the investigation courses the police have executed so far and cited that they were still waiting for forensic examination results for the pistols obtained from Bekele Gerba’s house as material evidence. The police also said electronic equipment examination was being expected from the National Intelligence and Network Security Agency (NISA. The police requested the additional 14 days as the team of investigators is waiting for assessment report of the property damages both to private citizens and different institutions and collection of testimonies from remaining witnesses.

Bekele’s defense team objected the request for the additional 14 days on the grounds that the police were presenting redundant reasons which are not adequate enough to hold their clients without bail. Furthermore, the defence team argued that personal involvement of their client in the alleged crime was not specified; rather similar accusations raised against other suspects was presented. There are 17 individuals in the file under Bekele’s name.

Independent media are bared from following the pretrial hearing. However, according to his Samuel Bekele, who, along with his sister Bontu Bekele, was initially arrested with his father, quoted his father as saying he was arrested “without a probable cause.”

Similarly, Hanna Regassa, the wife of Bekele Gerba told the BBC Amharic that the police have frozen Bekele and his family’s bank account without prior notice leaving the family under financial stress. “Bekele is a civil servant; he is not a businessman. There is no special financial statement in the family’s bank account; and I do not have a job,” she said, adding that she only learned the account was blocked when she went to withdraw money.

After listening to both sides of the argument, the court declined to grant the 14 days requested by the police and instead granted eight more days to remand and investigate Bekele Gerba, who appeared without the 16 others in his file. The court has also instructed the police to submit the results of its investigation report file via office before the due date and adjourned the next hear on 3rd of September 2020.

July 27: Lidetu Ayalew

In a related development, prominent opposition politician Lidetu Ayalew, founder of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) and appeared at a court in Bishoftu city on Monday July 27, his first appearance since he was detained on Friday July 24. Subsequently the court granted the police 14 days to remand and investigate Lidetu, who the police accused of coordinating and financially supporting a violence in Bishoftu city in the aftermath of Hachalu’s assassination. Lidetu, who appeared without defense team representing himself, denied all the accusations, Adane Tadesse, President of EDP, told Addis Standard.

Lidetu also questioned the legality of is detention and pretrial proceeding at a court in Bishoftu where he has a house for temporary stays; he told the court that his was a resident of Addis Abeba, where his residence address is legally registered in Kolfe Keraniyo sub city of the capital. He also told the court that he was awaiting a travel that same day for a medical examination abroad for heart disease complications and therefore should be released on bail in order to travel for his medical appointment. Further more Lidetu expressed his concerns about the lack no proper care at the detention facility to protect detainees from contracting COVID-19.

However, the investigating police argued he was well taken care of while in its custody and that he will destroy evidences if released on bail.

The court subsequently rejected the right to bail and transfer of the file to a federal court in Addis Abeba as the alleged crime was committed in Bishoftu and ruled the case to remain in Bishoftu. The court also permitted police the requested 14 days and set the next pretrial hearing to be on 10th of August 2020.

July 27: Hirut Kifle

On July 27 the Federal First Instance Court Arada Branch has granted the police yet additional eight days to remand and investigate Hirut Kifle, National Executive Committee members of the opposition Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema).

Hirut was detained on July 14 from her residence and was subsequently accused of “coordinating violence in Addis Abeba” when she was first brought to the same court on July 17, according to the party.

The police have already been 10 days to remand & investigate Hirut, gather witnesses & evidence, including electronic materials, to support the allegation during her pretrial hearing on July 17.

According to Ezema, despite request for bail during her second hearing on July 27, the judges have denied the request and instead granted the police eight more days to conduct further investigations. The court adjourned the next hearing to be on August 03. AS

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