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Ethiopia: Corruption Charges Filed, Not Heard

The Federal Ethics & Anti Corruption Commission (FEACC) finally announced, last week, that it has filed charges on close to 44 people from its high profile corruption case. Learning exactly what these charges are has still proved elusive for the suspects involved, however.

A couple of hearings, on Thursday and Friday, were cancelled because judges could not be assigned in time. Those being charged were finally informed that court proceedings to hear and answer to the charges were scheduled for October 14 and 18, 2013. This is almost six months after the Commission’s crackdown on the tax sector began.

In early May, shockwaves were created in the business community, as the Commission arrested top tax officials and businessmen. These included Melaku Fenta, the then director general of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA); his deputy at the time, Gebrewahed W. Giorgis, and many of his advisors and subordinates, who were arrested for alleged graft.

Businessmen of some repute were also arrested, including Simachew Kebede, who runs the Intercontinental Addis Hotel; Ketema Kebede of K.K Plc. Nega G.Egziabhere, shareholder in Netsa trading and owner of Nega city mall; Fekru Maru, MD, who runs the Addis Cardiac hospital and Meheretab Abreha, brother of the former TPLF veteran, Seye Abreha.

Following the arrests, seven investigation files were opened for over 60 detainees at the Federal High Court’s second criminal bench. The Commission repeatedly asked for continuances, in order to complete investigations for each file. This eventually took almost four months, without any charges coming. Bail was denied to detainees because of the seriousness of the allegations, except for those the Commission released itself during the investigation period.

On August 9, 2013, the Commission asked for 15 days to file charges and the cases were adjourned until August 21 and 22, 2013. Still no charges materilised within this time, as the prosecution team within the Commission felt that additional information was needed. Hence it was the investigation team that appeared on August 21 to ask for more investigation time on audit files. As all regular benches within the court were closed for the year, the court felt that it was not qualified to make a decision. It rescheduled the hearing for August 29, 2013.

On August 29, investigator Debebe Degafe and prosecutors Ayalew Tesema and Endale Tsegaye finally announced that they have filed charges in eight separate files to another bench. This included one of the judges who previously presided over the investigation continuance hearings.

Additional investigation time to process audit reports was requested for four people. These were – Mehereteab Abraha, Fitsum Gebremedhin, a businessman; Tekleab Zerabruk, the ERCA’s Mille Branch Manager and Begziabehere Alebel, a renowned architect and shareholder in Ultimate Plan Plc. Hence, no charges were brought. Judges have adjourned the case until September 5, 2013, granting investigators seven of the fourteen days requested.

The prosecutors have decided not to file charges against three people and the court ordered they be set free. Those to be released are Mesale Woldesellasie and Negussie Kebret from Tigabu Gidey et al file, and Getachew Assefa from Temesgen Seyoum et al file. Moreover, prosecutors asked that Mule Gashaw, from Gebrewahed et al file, be transferred to Oromia Ethics & Anti-Corruption Commission. This was due to jurisdiction issues. The judges ruled that he be transferred in five days.

For those to be charged, the court closed all investigation files and ordered that the suspects stay where they are until the new charge files are assigned to a bench for hearings. Most of the detainees have been kept at the Akaki (including Melaku and Gebrewahed) and Kilinto prison facilities, after the Commission announced it was ready to file charges. Some, however, still remain at Maekelawi, as the Commission is still investigating audit reports. Others remained at the police station, because audit investigations were still being conducted on the companies.

Lawyers of the suspects, however, complained that if charges are filed then they should be read aloud in court. Additionally, the issue of bail rights for their clients should be raised again, as soon as possible.

The presiding judges informed lawyers that they could go to the registrars and have the case assigned to the remand bench. The lawyers complied and the charge files were presented to the same bench, which settled on conducting the charging proceedings that afternoon.

When the lawyers returned in the afternoon, however, they were informed that their clients had been bussed back to prison. This was after it was decided that the court must assign judges to conduct the proceedings and that the hearing has been rescheduled for Friday morning. Information about the charges could not be revealed, as the files have been taken to the president’s office, the lawyers were also informed.

Friday again proved to be a long wait for suspects, their lawyers and the Commission’s investigators, who were waiting for judges inside the 10th criminal bench, from 9 o’clock. As the regular bench has closed, there were no judges available, Fortune was informed by the court attendants and others.

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