The Attorney General’s Office accuse suspect of feigning illness, while defense lawyers object to lack of transparency around witnesses
The pre-trial procedures in the prosecution of Jawar Mohammed and accomplices were recently interrupted by the active-turned-politician’s brief bout of ill-health, which triggered more deadly unrest in Oromia.
The protests started on 17 August shortly after news emerged of the Oromo Federalist Congress politician’s illness and continued the following day. Security forces reportedly killed dozens in Ambo, Shashemene, Dire Dawa, Bale Robe, Eastern and Western Hararghe and few other Oromia districts. Despite poisoning concerns, Jawar is now receiving treatment from his private doctor and is in good health, according to members of the politician’s defense team.
After a 17 August hearing that was the first in a pre-trial preliminary inquiry, the Federal Attorney General’s Office released a statement that accused the defendant of feigning sickness to create unrest and of efforts to intimidate state witnesses by Jawar’s supporters.
It said: “After the court gave a ruling on the [defense’s] arguments, when witness hearings were about to begin, Jawar left the court room claiming to be sick. These acts aim to interfere with the witness hearing process and to create chaos by his followers. Also, we learned that followers of the suspects have been attempting to intimidate witnesses to disturb and prolong the hearing process.”
Defense lawyer Tuli Bayessa told Ethiopia Insight that the reverse was true. “We have always wanted and pushed for speedy justice, since it’s our clients who have been deprived of their liberty. We even previously argued the prosecution wanted to conduct a preliminary inquiry to buy time,” he said.
At pre-trial hearings, the prosecution presents the general nature of evidence acquired by police investigators in order to justify the arrest of the suspect. During the subsequent preliminary inquiry, which is only routine in cases involving serious alleged crimes, witnesses are heard, and those testimonies are recorded and will be passed to the Federal High Court for the trial. A trial occurs unless prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office decide not to proceed. After the preliminary hearing, the prosecution has 15 days to file criminal charges at the high court, which may decide not to proceed with the trial if it is convinced by defense objections to the charges.
After falling ill, Jawar had asked the court to be allowed to see his own doctor. Defense attorney Tuli Bayessa told Ethiopia Insight that the request was initially rejected and then that decision was overturned on 20 August. Fekadu Tsega, the new deputy federal attorney general and a former top federal prosecutor, told ESAT on 21 August: “I have never seen such right be given to a detainee but we won’t oppose it as long as it doesn’t interfere with the investigation process.”
The witness hearings could not proceed because of Jawar’s illness and other irregularities. “After not being able to see our clients on the morning of Friday 14 August, we went back on 17 August to consult on the upcoming afternoon session, but we found that a camera has been installed inside the room designated for attorney-client meetings, and also Jawar was sick,” Tuli told Ethiopia insight.
Another defense attorney, Kedir Bullo, said the camera has already been installed when he went on Friday afternoon and he had to speak with his client outside the room. The prosecution told the court that they do not know who installed the camera and they will investigate. According to Tuli and Kedir, the camera was removed after the court’s order.
The defense submitted a written complaint that they could not consult with their clients because of the camera. Jawar addressed the court, stating that he wants to receive treatment from his doctor and he is not able to consult privately with his attorneys. He also asked the court to give him permission to speak to his wife and daughter, who are abroad. After addressing the court, Jawar asked if he may be excused because he was not feeling well.
The judge ultimately decided that the suspects’ right to consult with their attorneys in private should be respected and allowed Jawar to speak to his wife and daughter via a video call. But the request to be treated by his own doctor was rejected and the court ordered that he receives all the necessary medical treatment within the means provided by the government.
Even though the defense’s request for replacement of the judge had been previously rejected, the session was overseen by a different judge. However, this is not unusual in Ethiopian courts.
After three postponements, the preliminary inquiry started on 20 August. At that hearing, the first two of 15 witnesses gave testimony against Jawar. On 24 August, one more witness gave testimony regarding the same suspect behind a curtain in a closed court with none of the suspects’ family or the media present.
Regarding the hearing, Tuli, who said it was too early in the prosecution to comment on the content of the testimonies, said the first witnesses who gave testimony were unidentifiable, even though they not among the five witnesses under protection who were allowed to testify behind a curtain. “Their identity—name, address, occupation and so forth—hasn’t been stated and both witnesses were wearing a hat, black sunglasses, and a face mask; nobody could identify their face,” he said.
Kedir said: “The defense asked for the identity of the witnesses at which point the court ordered the witnesses to present ID cards and confirmed the witnesses are indeed those stated under the case file. After crosschecking their IDs with the file, the court returned the ID cards and proceeded with the hearing without revealing the identity of the witnesses.”
The witness hearings were to continue on 26 August, but didn’t because six suspects who were not present at the past two sessions still had not been tested for coronavirus. The test results were submitted to the court on 28 August and the hearings will resume on 1 September. Only eight suspects were present at the past two witness hearings but all 14 suspects will attend the next session.
Seventeen other suspects arrested in relation to the 30 June incident were on a hunger strike on 25 August and 26 August. The primary reason for the strike, defense lawyers said, is that the bank accounts of many suspects, including Jawar and Bekele and their immediate families, have been frozen, and their families are struggling.
One suspect, Korsa Dechasa, a local investor, and among those granted bail on 24 August, says that his property in Burayu is being embezzled by the local authorities and they aren’t being held accountable. The suspects on strike had a meeting with several police commanders on Thursday and the police promised justice for Korsa, defense lawyers said.
On 24 August, the defense asked the court to clarify by whom and why the action is taken. The court replied that it didn’t gave such order. The prosecution on 28 August revealed that the properties are frozen by order of the high court after they made a request. The defense team is in the process of submitting an objection to the high court.
The defense has appealed the Arada First Instance Court’s decision to hold a preliminary inquiry to the Federal High Court. A review of the appeal was supposed to begin on 10 August but the copy of the case files sent from the lower court wasn’t complete and the appeal has been adjourned to 24 August. However, the appeal was then set for 1 September because the case files has not arrived.
Kedir said that the defense should have been provided with answers about why a preliminary inquiry was necessary. “The appeal shows that the procedure whereby the inquiry was allowed was unconstitutional,” he said.