Activists heading to food workshop charged with terrorism in Ethiopia
Sept.27, Addis Ababa: Ethiopian authorities should immediately drop all charges and release a former World Bank translator and two other local activists charged under Ethiopia's repressive counterterrorism law after trying to attend a workshop on food security in Nairobi, six international development and human rights groups said today.
On September 7, 2015, the authorities charged Pastor Omot Agwa, Ashinie Astin, and Jamal Oumar Hojele under the counterterrorism law after detaining them for nearly six months. The charge sheet refers to the food security workshop, which was organized by an indigenous rights group and two international organizations, as a “terrorist group meeting.” The three were arrested on March 15 with four others while en route to the workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. Three were released without charge on April 24, and a fourth on June 26.
“Ethiopia should be encouraging debate about its development and food security challenges, not charging people with terrorism for attending a workshop organized by respected international organizations,” said Miges Baumann, deputy director at Bread for All. “These absurd charges should be dropped immediately.”
Omot, of the evangelical Mekane Yesus church in Ethiopia's Gambella region, was an interpreter for the World Bank Inspection Panel's 2014 investigation of a complaint by the Anuak indigenous people alleging widespread forced displacement and other serious human rights violations in relation to a World Bank project in Gambella. He had raised concerns with workshop organizers about increasing threats from Ethiopian security officials in the weeks before his arrest.
The food security workshop in Nairobi was organized by Bread for All, with the support of the Anywaa Survival Organisation (ASO) and GRAIN. Bread for All is the Development Service of the Protestant Churches in Switzerland. ASO is a London-based registered charity that seeks to support the rights of indigenous peoples in southwest Ethiopia. GRAIN is a small international nonprofit organization based in Barcelona, Spain that received the 2011 Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish Parliament for its “worldwide work to protect the livelihoods and rights of farming communities.”
The objective of the Nairobi workshop was to exchange “experience and information among different indigenous communities from Ethiopia and experts from international groups around food security challenges.” Participants from Ethiopia were selected by ASO based on their experience in supporting local communities to ensure their food security and access to land.
The charge sheet accuses Omot of being the co-founder and leader of the Gambella People's Liberation Movement (GPLM) and communicating with its leaders abroad, including ASO Director Nyikaw Ochalla, who is described in the charge sheet as GPLM's London-based “senior group terrorist leader.” Omot faces between 20 years and life in prison. Ashinie is accused of participating in the GPLM, including communicating with Nyikaw and preparing a research document entitled “Deforestation, dispossession and displacement of Gambela in general and Majang people in particular.” Jamal Oumar is accused of being a participant of a “terrorist group” and of organizing recruits to attend the Nairobi workshop.
The GPLM is not among the five organizations that the Ethiopian parliament has designated terrorist groups. It is an ethnic Anuak organization that fought alongside the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to oust the repressive Derg regime in the 1990s, and was folded into the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) power structure in 1998. Currently the GPLM has no public profile, no known leadership structure, and has not made any public statement of its goals.
“For the government to make criminal allegations against me because I assisted in coordinating a workshop about land and food issues in Ethiopia is simply incredible,” said Nyikaw Ochalla, ASO executive director. “Trying to give indigenous people a voice about their most precious resources – their land and their food – is not terrorism, it's a critical part of any sustainable development strategy.”
All three detainees were recently moved to Kalinto prison, on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, after spending more than five months in Maekelawi, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector in the city. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented torture and other ill-treatment at Maekelawi. Omot, and possibly the other two, were held in solitary confinement for three weeks upon their arrest, and all have had limited access to family members. Jamal and Omot have reportedly been in poor health.
The detainees were held 161 days without charge, well beyond the four months allowed under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, a period in violation of international human rights standards and among the longest permitted by law in the world. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for October 22, 2015.
Since 2011, Ethiopia's counterterrorism law has been used to prosecute journalists, bloggers, opposition politicians, and peaceful protesters. Many have been accused without compelling evidence of association with banned opposition groups.
In August 2015, 18 leaders of protests by the country's Muslim community were convicted and sentenced to between 7 and 22 years in prison. The ongoing trial of the members of a group called Zone 9 bloggers has been adjourned 36 times.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented numerous incidents in which individuals critical of Ethiopia's development programs have been detained and harassed, and often mistreated in detention. Journalists have been harassed for writing articles critical of the country's development policy.
“These three men are the latest victims of the Ethiopian government's crackdown on independent activists,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The arrests, lengthy detentions, and spurious terrorism charges bear all the hallmarks of Ethiopia's effort to silence critical voices.”
The Oslo Times/Ifex