December 05, 2017

Ethiopian justice: continuing worries about the Dr Merera case

Dr Merera

(ascleiden) —–In the continuing court case saga of Dr Merera Gudina (Ethiopian political scientist and Oromo Federalist Congress party opposition leader, and a former visiting fellow at the ASCL) little progress was made. He remains in ‘pre-trial custody’ (since 1 December 2016) and the case is dragging on via short sessions without substance or decisive action. While in prison he has no access to his lawyers or friends and relatives. It is becoming an embarrassing affair for everybody, including the state prosecution. Reason: there is simply no real case against him. There is no known fact perpetrated by Dr Merera that can be labelled ‘terrorism’ or ‘subversion of the constitutional order’.

In a letter sent from prison in early March 2017, responding to the Court’s refusal of release on bail on 3 March, Merera had written: “I am charged not because I am a criminal but for fighting for Ethiopia and its people for ages. Beginning from the era of Gen. Mengistu Neway and Gen. Tadesse Biru, I stayed in politics for a generation where killers, victims, and prisoners are in abundance. As an intellectual and an individual who believes that one can bring betterment to one’s country and its people, I have struggled in politics with devotion for the last 45 years. Putting aside the contributions I made and the abuse I endured to contribute to the creation of a country that will serve all its citizens with equality, my contribution to create a country where justice prevails and democracy flourishes for the last 25 years was my service as member of parliament, and to consider me as a common criminal and deny me bail is an abomination.”

The last two sessions of Ethiopia’s Federal High Court 19th Criminal Bench treating the case were on 16 October and on 3 November 2017. At the October session, convening after a long ‘summer recess’, Dr Merera objected in court to the charges issued on 7 July 2017. During this session Dr Merera’s lawyers had also requested to see the list of witnesses for the prosecution – to which the accused formally have the right. This was delayed by the court via referral of the request to the ‘House of Federation’ (the ‘Second Chamber’ of parliament) which in its capacity of constitutional review institution was asked to decide on this. Then, during the 16 October court session, it appeared that the final decision was not to make the names public but to hear the witnesses under identity protection. No information was given on the witnesses to the Merera legal team. According to Ethiopian legal specialists, producing and using witnesses is a weak point in Ethiopia’s justice system, because of the frequent pressurizing and tampering with testimonies.

Before the 16 October session the prosecutor’s office had tried to ‘mediate’ and had sent a four-person delegation of ‘elderly mediators’ to Dr Merera and offer him release on condition of ‘apologizing’ for his alleged deeds. This a well-known tactic used by the authorities, done countless times – but Merera refused and said that under such conditions he’d rather stay in prison. On 16 October Dr Merera was accorded the time to make his statement to formally respond to the charges made against him and enter a plea: almost 11 months late.

Meanwhile, calls for his release have been growing. On 18 May 2017 the European Parliament already passed a resolution on Ethiopia, deploring the violent crackdown on civil society in Ethiopia and specifically calling attention to the case of Dr Merera. The resolution urged the Ethiopian government to stop using anti-terrorism legislation to suppress peaceful opposition. On 20 October 2017, the organization ‘Scholars at Risk’ called upon the Ethiopian authorities to release Dr Merera and drop all charges. Also in bilateral and EU contacts with the Addis Ababa government the case is being brought up frequently.

During the most recent court session of 3 November the hearing of prosecutor’s witnesses was started, still without Dr Merera’s lawyers having knowledge of the list of these witnesses. But the two key witnesses called by the Prosecutor did not appear on 3 November, “because they could not be found”, it was said. A puzzling admission, on which one could speculate. It is unlikely that Prosecutor’s witnesses would be at risk. But suffice it to say that in this manner no headway can be made and no substance on the charges can be produced. It would be advisable for the political process in Ethiopia and graceful for the Court to throw out the case and release Dr Merera. It is to be recalled that Merera also spent seven years in prison under the previous Ethiopian regime (the Dergue) before 1991 on baseless charges and no verdict. He pays an unacceptably high price for his courage and commitment.

African Studies Centre Leiden

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