The United States on Friday April 29 said it was “deeply concerned by the Government of Ethiopia’s recent decision to file terrorism charges against Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) First Vice-Chairman Bekele Gerba and others in the Oromia region.”
On April 22 federal prosecutors have charged 22 individuals, including prominent opposition member Bekele Gerba, first secretary general of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), with various articles of Ethiopia’s much criticized Anti Terrorism Proclamation (ATP).
Charges against all include alleged membership of the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), public incitement, encouraging violence, as well as causing the death of innocent civilians and property destructions in cities such as Ambo and Adama, 120km west and 100km east of Addis Abeba respectively during the recent #OromoProtests in Ethiopia. To the shock of many, prosecutors have also indicted defendants for participating in the recent #OromoProtests against the implementation of the Addis Abeba Master Plan, the immediate cause for the protests within the Oromia regional state, the largest of the nine regional states that constitute Ethiopia.
“We again urge the Ethiopian government to discontinue its reliance on the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation law to prosecute journalists, political party members, and activists, as this practice silences independent voices that enhance, rather than hinder, Ethiopia’s democratic development,” a statement issued by John Kirby, Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson, Bureau of Public Affairs, reads.
Protesters in a gesture that became the symbol of the protests
A widespread protest by the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, that began in November 2015 has resulted in the death of hundreds of protests in the hands of government security forces, the arrest of thousands as well as forced disappearances of hundreds of Oromos in the last five months. Several hundred university students are also dismissed from their campuses for allegedly organizing student protests.
The federal government, together with the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the party that governs the region, have claimed to have cancelled the Addis Abeba master plan, which was the immediate cause of the protests, and staged the dismissal of hundreds of medium and lower lever cadres from the OPDO. “We commend Ethiopian officials for pledging to address legitimate grievances from their citizens and acknowledging that security forces were responsible for some of the violence that took place during the protests in Oromia,” said the statement.
But critics lament such measures fall short of decriminalizing dissent as thousands of Oromo protesters who are held in several temporary detention facilities throughout the country remained detained, and those who are brought to the federal court in Addis Abeba are charged with terrorism.
On April 26, sixteen additional individuals, all from the west Shewa zone in Oromia regional state, and were detained at Ethiopia’s notorious torture center, Ma’ekelawi, were charged with several articles of the ATP. Lawyer Wondimu Ebbissa, who is representing the previous 22 defendants, told journalists that so far 83 defendants, including Bekele Gerba et al, were held in Qilinto, a federal prison facility on the outskirt of south of Addis Abeba. He also said additional 97 prisoners all detained in connection with the #OromoProtest are believed to be either at Ma’ekelawi or the Addis Abeba police prison facility near Ma’ekelawi.
John Kirby’s statement admits that “the government continues to detain an unknown number of people for allegedly taking part in these protests and has not yet held accountable any security forces responsible for alleged abuses. This undermines the trust and confidence needed to produce lasting solutions.”
The US therefore urged the government in Ethiopia to “respect due process of those detained by investigating allegations of mistreatment, by publicly presenting the evidence it possesses against them, and by distinguishing between political opposition to the government and the use or incitement of violence.” “We reaffirm our call on the government to protect the constitutionally enshrined rights of its citizens, including the right to participate in political parties, and we urge the Government to promptly release those imprisoned for exercising these rights,” the statement said.