In a decision that has stunned the nation, the Ethiopian government on January 7 released from jail six of the captured leaders of the terrorist-designated TPLF (TPLF-6, henceforth), two individuals accused of terrorism, as well as some politicians and journalists. The decision to free the TPLF-6 and the alleged terrorists is politically irresponsible as it is morally indefensible.
The decision to free the TPLF-6 is legally, morally, and politically objectionable. The TPLF has committed war crimes against the Ethiopian people, especially against the Afar and Amhara people. Thousands of lives have been lost; infrastructure, public assets, and private property worth billions of dollars have been destroyed and looted; hundreds of women, some very young and others very old, have been gang raped; religious places have been desecrated. The TPLF-6, like all criminals, deserve their just deserts that is commensurate with their crimes, retributive for the victims, deterrent for society, and restorative for the perpetrators. Their release violates these aspects of administering justice.
The Amnesty is all the more troubling when we consider that the TPLF has not stopped its war against Ethiopia nor abandoned its political objectives. The TPLF has vowed to continue waging its war until it realizes its political objectives: the overthrowal of the government; the destruction of the Ethiopian army; the creation of the greater independent Tigray, “Abay Tigray”; and the disintegration of Ethiopia. Given the TPLF’s obduracy, the decision boggles the mind.
The release of the TPLF-6 from jail on January 7, on Coptic Christmas day, evokes some sort of clemency or pardon by the government on religious grounds, but when a clemency or a pardon is granted, the convicted criminal accepts full responsibility for his/her criminal act and expresses remorse for the pain inflicted on the victims. The government has not told us if the TPLF-6 have admitted their guilt or expressed their remorsefulness. As far as public knows, since the TPLF-6 has done neither, it is immortal for the government to grant amnesty to a TPLF leadership that has shown no remorse for the TPLF’s war crimes, has taken no responsibility for its role in the war, and has not renounced the destruction of Ethiopia. Forgiveness, at a minimum, requires the admission of guilt and an apology to the victims by the perpetrator. We haven’t heard anything from the TPLF-6.
Gross political interference in the judicial process
The release of the TPLF-6 is legally unconscionable. On January 5, the Prime Minister, in his assessment of the first 100 days of the new government, stated that his government needs to make progress in many areas, including improvement in the judiciary branch. He stated his concerns about how judges often pass judgement on the basis of irrelevant factors that are outside the law, but then two days later his government intervenes in the judicial process by freeing from jail individuals that it has accused of serious crimes against the state and the people of Ethiopia whose cases are impending in court.
This is political interference in the judicial process, unacceptable to all who uphold respecting the rule of law. The Prime Minister aspires to lead Ethiopia through a democratic transition, and in a democracy political leaders refrain from making statements about cases that are pending in court for fear of influencing the judgment, let alone release individuals before the court has rendered its decision. It’s authoritarian regimes that interfere in judicial matters.
At a press conference on January 8, the Attorney General stated that the government freed the TPLF-6 because of their advanced age, bad health, and limited role in the decision to launch the war against Ethiopia. Each of these points are unpersuasive. The age of an adult is irrelevant in determining whether the individual should stand for trial or not, as the experiences of other countries demonstrate. In Germany, in 2020, a 93-year old man, a former SS guard, was convicted for his Nazi crimes. Similarly, in 2021, a 100-year old SS guard was charged with complicity in Nazi crimes. Neither advanced age nor frail health absolves an individual from facing justice.
The Attorney General’s assertion that the TPLF-6 were peripheral in the decision to launch the war against Ethiopia is inconsistent with the government’s own criminal charges against them and the behaviour of the TPLF-6 members. The government claims to have gathered enough evidence to convict the captured TPLF leadership for serious crimes, including for crimes of sedition. When the ENDF entered Mekele on November 28, 2020, the TPLF-6 fled the city and hid in different places, but had they been innocent, they would have stayed in Mekele, as hundreds of thousands of innocent Tigrayans did. Sebhat Nega, the leading founder of the TPLF, has been credited as the main brain trust behind the plot to overthrow the government and to balkanize Ethiopia. The TPLF-6 were not innocent bystanders.
The Attorney General explains that individuals can be freed from jail though clemency, pardon, and the withdrawal of charges, and goes on to distinguish the subtle legal differences between the three forms of amnesty. In the case of the TPLF-6, he affirms that the government dropped the charges against them. For most Ethiopians, the legal distinction is academic, the theoretical nuance, irrelevant: it is a distinction without a meaning because the criminals have been freed for political reasons that have not yet been explained to the public, before the court had a chance to determine their innocence or guilt. Such interference in the judicial process signals authoritarian impulses.
The third reason that the Attorney General gave for justifying the amnesty was that the government decision will contribute towards national reconciliation, but the TPLF leadership has continued its war on Ethiopia, militarily in the Amhara and Afar regions and politically in the rest of the world. There is no sign that the TPLF has accepted the extended olive branch. It is most likely that when the TPLF-6 return to Mekele, unless they are forbidden to do so, they will receive the usual hero’s welcome, replete with parades, street dances, and drum beating.
They will dutifully resume their agitation about “the struggle for the survival of Tigray”. The release will not bring about peace; it will only heighten the conflict. The Attorney General says that the TPLF-6 were released from jail for humanitarian reasons, but there cannot be humanitarian justification for freeing individuals who have committed crimes against humanity.
The timing of the decision could not have been any worse. The people of Ethiopia, particularly those in the Afar and Amhara region, are still suffering from the agonies inflicted upon them by the TPLF. The wounds have not healed; the destroyed public and private property have not been rebuilt; the victims of the TPLF gang rapes have not recovered from their physical pains and psychological trauma; those who lost loved ones are still in mourning; the TPLF is still killing Ethiopians. To release the criminals at this time, is to be tone deaf; it rubs salt into the wound.
The political ramifications
The political ramifications of the amnesty are not insignificant. It emboldens the TPLF and its surrogate the OLF-Shenay to pursue their terrorist acts. These groups will not view the amnesty as a gesture of goodwill, an olive branch for peace, or a step towards reconciliation, but as a victory they won through their armed struggle. It could encourage them to intensify their struggle to achieve their short-term objective of sharing political power with the government and their long-term goal of dismantling Ethiopia.
The decision will anger the people of Afar and Amhara, the main victims of the TPLF’s war crimes. Their property destroyed, their dignity violated, their humanity denied, their people killed; their sisters, daughters, and mothers gang raped; their places of worship desecrated by the TPLF, the people of Afar and Amhara may rightfully feel betrayed by their government. How can they continue fighting against TPLF aggression, when the government is releasing the criminals that they helped to capture?
The amnesty will not bode well with the rest of the Ethiopian people either. With the arrest of the key TPLF leaders who epitomize corruption, embezzlement, and tyranny in the previous 27 years, Ethiopians were hoping that finally the law will prevail, the criminals will be held accountable, and that justice will be served, but their hopes were dashed by the decision to release the criminals from jail. Their trust in the justice system and their faith in the political judgement of the current government have been shattered. It will take a long time to repair the damage.
The Ethiopian diaspora, even those who don’t support the government, stood by it in its conflict with the TPLF. Out of their duty to Ethiopia, they have contributed diplomatically, financially, and politically in the struggle against the TPLF’s war on Ethiopia, but this amnesty will enrage many people. Some may be reticent to pursue their commitment to the war effort; others may embrace the numerous conspiracy theories about the true intentions of the Abiy government that are widely circulating among certain segments of Ethiopians; still others may withdraw from engaging in Ethiopia’s political affairs all together. The impact of the decision on the diaspora community is considerable.
The US and the UN have hailed the amnesty, but this decision alone will not satisfy US demands. (I have discussed US demands in detail elsewhere). To avoid further US sanctions and to access funding from multinational organizations, namely from the IMF and the World Bank, the US government has insisted that the government release of the TPLF leaders, among other demands. It is more than pure coincidence that the prisoners were released while Jeffrey Feltman was in Addis Ababa talking with the Prime Minister.
It is reasonable to assume that the US pressure may have resulted in the release of the war criminals, but this will not stop the US from insisting that its other demands be fulfilled. It would appear that the decision will reward Feltman, who was in his last trip to Ethiopia as the special envoy to the Horn Africa. He would have something to deliver to Anthony Blinken, and yet it is unlikely that Blinken will refrain from insisting the other remaining US demands be met or from issuing more imperial orders.
If the amnesty is because of US intervention in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, as most suspect it is, it indicates that the Ethiopian government has capitulated to US pressure, at least partially, despite the gathering momentum of the international “no more” movement against US interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia and other countries. The decision undermines the movement.
Many Ethiopians were jubilant when the Prime Minister told parliament on November 30, 2020, that Ethiopia’s sovereignty is not for sale, but this amnesty that validates US imperial power has disappointed most Ethiopians. It looks like Ethiopia has submitted to US hegemonic intimidation.
The decision to release the war criminals and the alleged terrorist activists from jail doesn’t augur well for peace, national reconciliation, and national unity in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is in danger of falling into instability for an extended time because of the imprudent decision of the government.
Worku Aberra is a professor economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.