By Eve Pearce
November 10, 2012 (ayyaantuu.com) — On November 1st, the Ethiopian national court convicted nine Oromo nationals, including opposition party leader Bekele Gerba, of crimes related to the sweeping anti-terrorism laws. Gerba was joined by another member of the opposition party, Olbana Lellisa, and seven other Oromo nationals, who were arrested for unknown and unclear reasons. Their sentencing is expected to take place in several weeks.
The case began in August of 2011 when Gerba and Lellisa were arrested after meeting with an Amnesty International delegate, which was afterwards expelled from the country. Gerba, an English teacher at Addis Ababa University and deputy Chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), met with the delegate on August 23, 2011 to exchange information related to human rights abuses within the country. Lellisa, of the Oromo People’s Congress party (OPC) met with the same delegate under similar circumstances three days later, on August 26th. The next day both men were arrested and charged with terror-related offenses; neither of which were publicly supported with evidence.
Although the Ethiopian government denied that the arrests were made in relation to the meetings, Amnesty International released a statement just days later reporting that on the same day that the arrests were made, the Ethiopian government also called a meeting with the international organization’s delegate, ordering them leave the country immediately. Within the same statement, Michelle Kagari, deputy programme director for Africa, expressed doubt that the arrests and meeting were unconnected: “We are extremely concerned that the arrests of the two men occurred within days of talking with our delegates… we are worried that their arrests are not a coincidence.”
Amnesty International also reported that the arrests were made on allegations that Gerba belonged to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization founded in 1973 by Oromo nationals to promote self-determination against what they call “Abyssinian colonial rule.” Although often reported as a currently peaceful organization, the OLF has a history of violent protests and has been outlawed by the Ethiopian government and labeled as a terrorist organization. According to Amnesty International, arrests made based on fabricated links between opposing party politicians and the OLF are often used to silence members of the Oromo political opposition. Amnesty International also reported that during their delegate meeting with Gerba, he noted the irony of the oft-used technique, claiming that OLF is actually vastly ideologically opposed to the OFDM and does not support many of the opposing party members.
The trial was held as a joint affair after detaining the Oromo nationals for more than a year in several institutions, including Maikelawi federal police investigation center – an institution reported by Amnesty International to make frequent use of arbitrary detention, physical and emotional torture, withholding food and drink, and denial of requests for an attorney or family members. While all nine defendants were represented by attorneys throughout the trail, three of the defendants chose to speak without a lawyer – a request approved by the presiding judge, although he frequently interrupted their claims and harshly criticized their lack of remorse.
Gerba’s testimony was one that will now go down in history as one of the most publicly critical speeches against the Ethiopian government since the birth of the Oromo emancipation efforts in the 1960s. Refusing to apologize for his unsubstantiated crimes, Gerba instead chose to claim innocence and sought apology from the Oromo people “for failing to fully speak to the depth of their suffering in the interest of the co-existence of peoples.”
Gerba’s courage to speak honestly within the Court will not go unpunished; his wife is fully expected to be dismissed from her job in the coming days and his children may become endangered. However, his unabridged condiment for the falsity of his criminal charges, corruption of the political system, and injustice of the Ethiopian justice system is now publicly noted – an act of bravery that will hopefully instill inspiration within the opposition parties to continue their effort to overturn the controlling autocratic leadership party.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has long used the overarching terrorism laws to arrest and convict opposing party leaders and members for political consent – a crime not upheld within any of Ethiopia’s carefully planned, yet avoided, constitutional laws. It is difficult to see how overseas business can continue to operate in the country against this backdrop. Gerba, Lellisa, and the seven additionally now-convicted criminals face up to 25 years in prison for their supposed crimes.
–Eve Pearce is ayyaantuu.com contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org