The prosecution of 29 Muslim protest leaders
and others charged under Ethiopia's deeply flawed anti-terrorism law
raises serious fair trial concerns. The trial is scheduled to resume in
Addis Ababa on April 2, 2013, after a 40-day postponement.
The case has already had major due process problems. Some defendants
have alleged ill-treatment in pre-trial detention. The government has
provided defendants limited access to legal counsel and has taken
actions that undermined their presumption of innocence. Since January 22
the High Court has closed the hearings to the public, including the
media, diplomats, and family members of defendants.
"There seems to be no limit to the Ethiopian government's use of its
anti-terrorism law and unfair trials to stop peaceful dissent," said
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. "The government's treatment of
these Muslim leaders bears the hallmarks of a politically motivated
The defendants include Muslim leaders and activists arrested and
detained in July 2012 following six months of public protests in Addis
Ababa and other towns by Ethiopia's Muslim community over alleged
government interference in religious affairs.
Others on trial include Yusuf Getachew, former managing editor of the
now defunct Islamic magazine Yemuslimoch Guday, and two Muslim
nongovernmental organizations, allegedly managed by three of the
defendants. Solomon Kebede was arrested and is being held under the
According to official figures, Muslims make up approximately 30
percent of Ethiopia's population. The protest movement began after the
government insisted that the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs accept
members from an Islamic sect known as al Ahbash and tried to impose its
teachings on the Muslim community. The government also sought to
influence the operations of the Awalia mosque in Addis Ababa.
In January 2012 the Muslim community created a committee to represent
it in discussions with the government. Nine of the 17 members of this
committee are among those on trial: Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel, Ahmed
Mustafa, Kamil Shemsu, Jemal Yassin, Yassin Nuru, Sheikh Sultan Aman,
Sheikh Mekete Muhe, and Sheikh Tahir Abdulkadir.
They were arrested as the Ethiopian security forces began a major
crackdown on the protests at Awalia and Anwar mosques in Addis Ababa and
on protests in other cities as well, arresting and assaulting hundreds
of protesters. Although the government has not released numbers,
credible sources told Human Rights Watch that as many as 1,000 people
were arrested in July alone.
Journalists attempting to cover or report on the protests were also
detained or intimidated. Despite these arrests, weekly protests have
continued throughout the country.
As in Ethiopia's earlier terrorism trials of journalists and
opposition leaders, the current trial has been marred by serious due
process violations.Defendants have had erratic access to lawyers and
relatives, and a number of the defendants were initially held for almost
two months without access to legal counsel.
Lawyers for the defendants have repeatedly complained to the courts
about the treatment of their clients, and alleged that the Muslim
committee members and Getachew were mistreated during their pre-trial
detention at the Federal Police Crime Investigation Department, known as
Maekelawi prison, in Addis Ababa, which is notorious for torture.
The complaints do not appear to have been appropriately investigated.
Both the first instance court and the higher court have claimed not to
have the jurisdiction over these matters.
The defendants have all been charged with "terrorist acts" under
article 3 of Ethiopia's 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and with
planning and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts under article 4.
Descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet do not contain
the basic elements of the crimes that the defendants are alleged to have
Human Rights Watch, other human rights organizations, and the United
Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly
raised concerns about the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation's overly broad
provisions, which have been used to criminalize legitimate free
expression and peaceful dissent.
Thirty-four people, including eleven journalists and at least four
opposition supporters, are known to have been sentenced under the law
between late 2011 and mid-2012 in apparently politically motivated
The government has also undermined the defendants' presumption of
innocence by broadcasting inflammatory material and accusations against
them on state television.
In February state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV) broadcast a program
called "Jihadawi Harakat" ("Jihad War") that included footage of at
least five of the defendants filmed in pre-trial detention, including
Muslim committee members Kamil Shemsu, Ahmed Mustafa, Abubekar Ahmed,
and Yassin Nuru, and the activist Nuru Turki. The program equates the
Muslim protest movement in Ethiopia with Islamist extremist groups such
as Somalia's armed al-Shabaab militants, and casts the Muslim protest
leaders as terrorists. The High Court granted an injunction prohibiting the broadcast but ETV ignored the court order.
The ETV broadcast was the latest in a series
of television programs - many of them produced by the government's
Communications Ministry in collaboration with police or security
services -that try to smear the defendants in terrorism trials.
In November 2011, ETV broadcast "Akeldama" ("Land of Blood") during
the terrorism trial of 24 people, including prominent members of the
political opposition and journalists. The program, which included film
of several of the defendants in pre-trial detention, apparently under
duress, described the defendants' alleged involvement in a "terrorist
Two Swedish journalists were the subject of another similar piece in
2011 after they were arrested in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region. They
were subjected to a mock execution during the filming.
"The unfair trial of the Muslim activists is compounded by the
government's TV program that demonizes them as 'terrorists' and
threatens to raise suspicion of all Muslims and their ongoing protests,"
Lefkow said. "The Ethiopian government is prosecuting people who are
simply trying to protect their rights to religious freedom and free
The government has also continued to use the anti-terrorism law to silence the media.
Kebede, Getachew's successor at Yemuslimoch Guday, has been held for
more than two months in pre-trial detention without charges. Heis being
held in Maekelawi prison, withoutaccess to legal counsel, which
heightens concerns about his treatment and safety.
On March 15 the first instance court granted the police an additional 28 days for further investigation in Kebede's case.
The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation permits pre-trial detention for up to
four months without charge, one of the longest periods in
anti-terrorism legislation worldwide,in violation of Ethiopia's
international legal obligations. Under the Ethiopian constitution
detainees must be charged or released within 48 hours.
"Rather than jailing peaceful protesters and critical journalists,
the government should amend the anti-terrorism law and stop these
politically motivated trials," Lefkow said. "The government should be
reaching out to the Muslim community and discussing their grievances
rather than silencing their voices and leaders."