An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

21 mins read

January 26, 2014
President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Dear Mr. President,

Mandela+Obama+The Ethio-Muslims causeAs the respected leader of the free world, you know very well that religious freedom is one of the fundamental pillars of the human rights policy of any democratic country. This truth was enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Ethiopia is a signatory. The UN’s preamble states, in part:
“Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms…”

Although the Ethiopian government frequently speaks on the media and every conference it attends about justice and democracy, the reality on the ground is extremely hard to believe; that itself has and continues to commit inhumane acts of terror that strikingly resembles atrocities committed by dictators of any era of time. It attempts to justify its actions under the pretext of “guarding the morals, laws and positive values that the public cherishes.” Our compatriots who demanded for the respect of justice and freedom are either incarcerated, forced into exile, or most lamentably, dead. It is very ironic that these transgressions are perpetrated in the name of upholding public moral, positive values, and the law of the land, when the government itself, several times before and continuing to do so, has breached not only international law but the standards of regulation it set up for itself enshrined in its own constitution. The constitution is mainly an instrument meant to prevent government from abusing its power by setting down guidelines on how to conduct itself. Consequently, the people need the constitution far more than the government to protect their rights and to assure peace and justice, while limiting the government’s ability to abuse its power. Hence, it is the government rather than the people that is prone to violate the constitution since it has the means and the power to do so.

The Ethiopian people and the international community know that the demands the country’s Muslim community have made to the government through their representatives, namely the 17-member Arbitration Committee (AC) sent two years at the start of the movement who today are imprisoned and still awaiting trial, are nothing more than sheer civil liberties. However, the government has tried to distort their legitimate demands by posing to be overwhelmingly concerned with national security and the maintenance of social order in the state, but in such a manner as though it is the only entity that does so, and as a result, pronounces the demands as threatening to these basic, fundamental principles of government. The deceitful, corrupted claims it proposes about the true intent of the mainstream Ethiopian Muslim movement and its leaders are what the government uses as a pretext to detain innocent citizens under the label of being a “terrorist,” or even vaguer, “conspiring to perform terrorist acts.” Evidence to determine that any participant in the Ethiopian Muslim protests or that any of its organizers have committed any acts of terror is nonexistent, for the lack of it tells the true story on its own. Consequently though, this has prompted the government to initiate a process of fabricating this “evidence” so that it may be used against those convicted in the courts, and hence revealing the glaring truth that gives the reason for why the trials of the Arbitration Committee members have been and are constantly being delayed.
obama ethiopia
Despite peaceful popular resistance, the government has kept on its illegal moves with typical stubbornness and total disregard for the well being of its citizens. As a result, it has subjected the people who’ve raised the three demands as well as their representatives to incarceration, exile, untold sufferings, and death. With an evermore increasing threat looming from their own constitutional guardian, their three demands had called for:

(1) “The cease and desist of government interference in their religious affairs, including the forceful and deliberate imposition of an imported sect known as Al-Ahbash on the entire Muslim population of Ethiopia;
(2) The removal of the incumbent unelected leadership of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, currently composed of members of this sect, followed by the organization of a free, fair election where Muslims are able to elect their own representatives to the Council and vote on the grounds of their respective local mosques instead of government-controlled precincts; and finally
(3) The reopening of Awoliya College and Secondary School in Addis Ababa, the only Islamic institution of higher education in Ethiopia, for its students to continue the pursuit of their now interrupted education.
In addition to the above, they are also demanding the release of their incarcerated leaders who have been abused, denigrated, and demonized in the national media via a ludicrous documentary aired on state television that blatantly depicted them as radical extremists, and furthermore stripped them of the presumption of their innocence, all occurring while still being held in pre-trial detention. But not to mention, for what specific reasons were they subjected to this sort of harsh treatment? Was it for employing their constitutional rights by calling for a lawfully-permitted, massive yet peaceful assembly? Or was it for the message sent by these demonstrations, that the government must uphold its duty of executing its tasks unconditionally under the provisions of the constitution and that its constant means of oppression towards its own people is a breach of the law?

Since the start of the Muslim community’s peaceful movement, the government has continued to violate the rights of civil servants, business owners, students, teachers, religious scholars, and Islamic institutions, as well as journalists and other prisoners of conscience without any compunction and in contravention to the constitution. The most recent event that manifested the government’s disposition of abhorrence towards the movement and thus foreshadowed its subsequent course of action just so happened to occur on the day of Eid Al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. On this day, the government carried out an unforgettably heinous crime, indiscriminately brutalizing the Muslim population in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country, and thus overshadowing with great sadness a day that was supposed to be one of great joy and festivity. It carried out indiscriminate detentions, killings, and brutal attacks that would leave permanent physical as well as emotional wounds on our beloved compatriots and families back home. But this isn’t the first time the government has abused its power to crackdown on peaceful civil protest, for instances of hostile reprisal against the Muslims for conducting these demonstrations have occurred rather abruptly at times, in scenes varying from major cities to small, isolated towns in the countryside. In fact, just 5 days prior to the Eid day rally came a day of great tragedy and horrific obscenity, what supporters of the movement refer to as the Kofele massacre, where government brigade forces gunned down more than 25 Muslims, including a mother and her child, in the town of Kofele, Oromiyaa Region, after protestors took it to the streets demanding the release of three local imams who were arrested earlier in the week. Other instances include a raid on a mosque and a Qur’an school in the city of Woldiya, Amhara Region by the Ethiopian Federal Police Forces with similar raids carried out in the towns of Kemise and Gerba, resulting in the deaths of at least five Muslim residents in the latter assault, and the performance of illegal searches and seizures during the former. All these brutalities reveal on one hand the government’s atrocities and the absence of rule of law in the country, while on the other hand demonstrate our peoples’ commitment and unflinching determination towards achieving justice.

Although two years have passed since the start of this dynamic, peaceful movement and the unlawful detention of its leaders, millions of Ethiopian Muslims, fearing the total erosion of their faith, have continued to resist the government’s grand scheme by peacefully assembling on the compounds of their mosques every Friday and voicing their objections. Mosque leaders in different parts of the country who have also resisted forceful conversion to the ideology of Al-Ahbash as well as having objected to accept the disintegration of their religion were systematically dismissed and replaced with newly appointed Al-Ahbash followers, most former government officials but all persistent government sympathizers, who have now gained the animosity of congregations all over the country. While these draconian rules were being implemented, the government has not ceased to undermine the authority of the resident Muslim scholars by jailing and silencing them.

The government is also sparing no effort in creating a schism between the Muslim and Christian populations of the country by concocting divisive measures. The government had hoped to achieve religious division in the country using state-run Ethiopian Television (ETv) as its primary instrument of propaganda. This desire was clearly displayed when it aired a shocking hour-long documentary entitled “Jihadawi Harakat,” roughly translating to “Jihadist Movement,” which drew parallels between the aims of the Ethiopian Muslims’ peaceful protests to those of Africa’s most notorious Al-Qaeda affiliated militant groups. It had also equated the leaders of this movement to the criminal leaders of these terrorist organizations. Through this broadcast, the government hoped to sway public opinion by establishing the notion that the protest leaders were collaborating in a terrorist plot, which in theory, would have incited violence between Muslims and Christians as the latter would have adopted a grim outlook on their Muslim brethren—in reality, the majority of Ethiopian Christians instead responded by denouncing the film, becoming more convinced than ever that the government was trying to undermine the significance of the Ethiopian Muslims’ protests. The numerous solidarity rallies organized all over the world have served as a strong testament to this fact and are intended to support the cause of the Ethiopian Muslims civil rights movement.
The Ethiopian Muslims and Christians have lived side by side peacefully for centuries, and in this time have shared well cherished, amicable relations, being one of the one first communities of its kind not only in Africa, but in the world. Inherently, they are not going to let this government destroy that peaceful co-existence. All these outrageous plots by the government have failed miserably and have deprived the citizens the rights for a measure of accountability of the government’s contemptible actions. At the same time, the ongoing peaceful protests that have shown extreme patience and discipline for the past two years have not subsided.

The Ethiopian government should be held accountable for these infringements of the Ethiopian constitution and breach of contract with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Ethiopian government has, time and time again, missed the opportunity to respond to the legitimate demands of its people by failing to redress their grievances. But even in the face of constant threats from the government to cease the protests, for otherwise punitive action would be undertaken, the determination of Ethiopia’s Muslims to achieve their religious freedom has not diminished, for they continue to uphold their universally recognized rights and refuse to give them up just so things may come to a halt. It is important to note that the Muslims were never asking for a change of government, contrary to the absurd claims made by the prevailing regime. The country has faced this too many times in the past and it has only resulted in famine and bloodshed. The incarcerated leaders merely raised the aforementioned three demands. What we aspire to attain through this movement is simply a shift in the government’s current policy of behavior towards the Muslims, one of hostility and oppression, to one of cooperation and concord, but this can only be achieved once the government safeguards the rights of all of its people and pursues a promising path to democracy. But now as we see the government’s relentless efforts in trying to suppress this movement, we realize that they must not share the same ambitions for an improved democracy and would rather go on with its unscrupulous means to restrict the rights of Ethiopian Muslims, as well as others.

In the wake of universal calls from its affected citizens, expatriate nationals, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, the European Commission, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Watch, among various other organizations defending human rights, the Ethiopian government has not budged one inch from its contumacious position. The government still fails to respond to these cries to cease their manipulative conspiracy, but continues to act in a manner oblivious to their opposition coming from all sides. The government’s determination to further its underhanded systematic intrigue of inflicting something upon the Muslims of Ethiopia that would be so detrimental not only to the civil liberties of these people but to the overall stability of the nation as a whole has proven to be nothing more than a desperate and pitiful attempt to assure itself of absolute control over the country.

The mass protest in Ethiopia has now been elevated to a groundswell movement for religious freedom and justice that transcends the differences in politics, ethnicity and even religion, a remarkable feat considering Ethiopia’s diverse makeup. Continuous word-wide rallies in support of this cause are all intended to press the government to fulfill its obligations and conduct itself according to the rule of law. The demonstrations are all peaceful and shall continue to mirror the ones that have been conducted in Ethiopia for the past two years.

Mr. President, we, as residents & citizens of this great nation, are lucky enough and grateful for the opportunity afforded to us to enjoy the amenities of democracy. Unfortunately, we could not say the same about 90 million Ethiopians. Ethiopians that played significant roles in the liberation of other African countries from the yoke of colonialism are today themselves suffering under the weight of tyranny deprived of basic human rights. Historically, the United States of America has always been at the forefront of aiding such people in distress as the Ethiopian people are today. Ethiopians who have a special affinity with Americans today expect nothing less.

The Ethiopian Muslims’ demands are simple and attainable with the support of high authorities: These are for them to be given back the freedom to manage their own religious affairs, the release of their leaders, and the recognition by their own government that it has a duty towards it people to protect their unalienable rights. There must be a change in the way this tyrannical government approaches its people, for its persistence in denying them the very thing that was promised to them at the government’s establishment must stop. Therefore, we humbly request that you revisit the current situation in Ethiopia and use the leverage you have to impress upon the Ethiopian government so that it may rectify its misguided policies against its own people, resolve the demands of its Muslim community to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, and grant the unconditional, immediate release of the unlawfully incarcerated leaders of the peaceful movement. Once again, we sincerely and earnestly appeal to you and your respected office to help bring the Ethiopian Government into the limelight on this religious freedom issue, so that this noble cause for the rights of the people to exercise freedom of religion without coercion or forced indoctrination in Ethiopia could serve as a test case for democracy and freedom in countries.

Dimtsachin Yisema Washington, DC Task Force

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