BY ELLENI ARAYA
After 90 days in police custody over allegations of corruption, Melaku Fenta, the former director general of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA), will face charges in the next 15 days. He will be tried along with most of the 63 high and mid-level tax officials and businessmen detained with him.
The arrests came as part of a recent crackdown on high level tax officials and businessmen launched by the Federal Ethics & Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC), in early May 2013. The timeframe was set on Friday, August 9, 2013, when the Commission’s investigators informed the Second Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court that they had released 10 people on bail. This was in addition to the six already released previously.
They also announced they have wrapped up their investigations and would be ready to file charges in 15 days. Most prominent among those released on bail was Eshetu Woldesemayat, chief attorney general of the ERCA. This decision represented a change from previous court dates when investigators repeatedly asked for more time to conduct further investigations and gather evidence. Since the case began, judges have granted up to seven time extensions for each file.
Initially, the list of detainees was presented to the court in three separate files. This eventually grew to seven, as additional suspects were arrested. It was during a court appointment for six of the seven files that investigators announced the closing of their investigation.
The list of detainees includes – tax officials, Gebrewahed W. Giorgis, former director of Low Enforcement Directorate at the ERCA; Mamo Abdi, advisor to Melaku, and Markeneh Alemayehu, former deputy director of prosecution at the ERCA.
Prominent businessmen were also jailed, including – Simachew Kebede, who runs InterContinental Addis; Ketema Kebede, major shareholder of K.K. Plc; Nega G. Egziabhere, major shareholder in Netsa Trading Plc; Fikru Maru (MD), who runs Addis Cardiac Hospital and Mihretab Abraha, a businessman and brother of former TPLF leader, Siye Abraha.
As lawyers of the detained decried the multiple continuation requests, the Commission’s investigator argued that the alleged crimes are interlinked. This is despite the fact that they spanned different regions, like Oromia, Afar and the Southern Regional State. Adding, too, that they were complicated.
Indeed, the list of suspicions being read out in Court has grown longer with each court date and now includes tax evasion, auditing irregularities, misuse of duty free imports, illegal import of cement using the prohibited Franco Valuta method and the halting of charges and investigations for undue benefits.
But this all came to an end last Friday, as investigators announced the completion of their enquiry.
Other than Eshetu, those who were released on bail included – Tigist Alemayehu, the sister of Markeneh Alemayehu; Baheru Abreha, major shareholder of Natan & Bisrat Trading Plc and Tewoldebisrat G. Medhin, director of the ERCA’s Crime Investigation Unit.
Dagne Seneshaw, a customs official at the ERCA; Muluken Tesfaye, Seyoum Leikun and Hailemariam Assefa, all of whom worked at the WoW Transit Company; Almaz Kebede, co-owner of WoW Transit; Frehiwot Getachew, who operates her own transit company and Degu Awgechew, a driver at the Ethiopian Airforce, were also released on bail.
They were released on Thursday and Friday morning before the court appointment, according to sources at the Commission interviewed by Fortune. For the rest of the detainees, investigators asked that bail be denied. The court granted the request after a prosecutor from the Commission successfully argued that the charges to be brought carry sentences of at least 10 years imprisonment. In such cases, bail rights are restricted by law.
The Court allowed the Commission up until August 22, 2013 to file charges. The content and count of the charges will be decided until then, according to a source from the Commission. Two out of the 64 will not be prosecuted and the Commission is yet to decide whether charges will be brought against those released on bail, the source also informed Fortune.