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PoliticsDelving into reform implications of the latest prisoners’ release

Delving into reform implications of the latest prisoners’ release

Last week saw the release of prominent political figures, some after almost two years of detention. Six out of the 62 individuals detained in the case of Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) and Co. were released along with 20 individuals detained under the case of Jawar Mohammed and Co. and seven individuals in the case of Eskender Nega and Co. on the day of Christmas celebrations on January 7, 2022.

In a statement issued on the same day, Ethiopia’s Government Communication Service (GCS) said the detainees were released on amnesty (pardon) aimed at achieving an inclusive national dialogue, which the country initiated by introducing a law establishing a National Dialogue Commission.

An immediate reaction from the Oromia regional government also highlighted the importance of the release of detainees for the intended national dialogue.

“The Government strongly believes that Ethiopia’s problems need to be addressed in a comprehensive dialogical approach,” read a statement from the GSC indicating that the release of prisoners would help the dialogue succeed.

However, questions started to surface regarding the modalities of the release of detainees. Although the GCS said they were granted amnesty, people questioned as to why it did not follow the due process of granting pardons.

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Article 71 of the FDRE Constitution gives the President the power to grant pardons. Under the powers and functions of the President, the constitution provides under sub-article 7 that, the President “shall, in accordance with conditions and procedures established by law, grant pardons.”

And it is customary for the Office of the President to announce the people that were granted pardons, which did not happen in this case.

Later, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) explained that the released suspects were given neither amnesty nor pardons; rather their cases were withdrawn according to proclamation 943/2016. The proclamation gives the Federal Attorney General, now the MoJ, the power to institute criminal charges by representing the federal government, litigate, withdraw charges, and when found necessary in the interest of the public, resume withdrawn charges.

The Federal Supreme Court also issued a statement on January 10, 2022, clarifying the legality of the decision, under applicable criminal procedure laws of the country.

However, the charges against six individuals in the case of Debretsion and Co. were withdrawn given the health and age conditions of the suspects. While there are many people that supported the release of the prisoners, opening the door for peace, others questioned the release of suspected TPLF members, who were branded as “masterminds of the TPLF atrocities,” by state media houses such as the Ethiopian Press Agency.

The Amharic newspaper, Addis Zemen’s January 9, 2021 edition full front page news headline read, “Destruction strategist and the main leader of the junta apprehended.”

In a statement the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) party issued following the decision, it criticized the government for what it said was a separate and arrogant decision. It also said that this decision comes on top of unhealed wounds of the affected, while destructed areas have not yet recovered from the shocks. It said such decisions would set a precedent that wielding force would be an option to achieve whatever some groups want.

A lawyer by profession, Andualem Bekele, also reflected on his Facebook account regarding the release of TPLF leaders saying, the constitution as well as the penal code prohibits pardons or amnesty for “crimes against humanity,” and withdrawal of cases follows the same suit “for a stronger reason.”

On the other hand, in a statement issued by the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) on January 11, 2022, after the release of its members, Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, appreciated the belated decision by the government stating it would “prevent further destruction, restore peace through reconciliation and rebuild the country.” It also called for a negotiated resolution to the ongoing war in Oromia, Tigray and Benshangul-Gumuz regions.

Chernet Hordofa, an attorney at law and a criminal law expert, said the decision by the government is the right one given the nature of the conflict in the northern part of the country. Since the conflict has transitioned from being a law enforcement operation into a matter of survival because of the involvement of foreign forces, the decision makes much sense and is timely, he stated.

“I have been studying how other countries resolved similar problems. The main point we need to understand is that, the problem cannot be resolved only by force. It requires political solutions as it is a deep political problem,” he told The Reporter.

According to him, although government forces had won the fight in December 2020, the military success did not bring about a political success for the central government. The detainees from Oromia and Addis Ababa are also expected to be released because the intended national dialogue should not leave anyone behind. In this context, although the confusion in the nature of releasing the prisoners is miniscule, such matters should not be taken lightly in the future, Chernet stated.

Chernet says he even expects the government to take more bitter decisions to bring about peace and warned that there should be caution to avoid the erosion of unity found during the conflict, while seeking peace.

However, the division has already started to show. A consultant of an Ethiopian origin for the University of California wrote in a public email group, “The fact Sebhat Nega is freed may not be the end of the world—it is a political blunder which has given some in Tigray the illusion of victory.

“I suspect Abiy is inclined to negotiate with the TPLF. If that is the case, there should be a coordinated effort on the part of the public to pressure Abiy not to negotiate with the TPLF before the terms of the negotiation are drafted by experts, and debated especially by the Amhara and Afar regional leaders, as well as the public. Abiy must create a transparent process and involve experts to handle any future negotiation with the TPLF,” read the email.

On the other hand, both local and diaspora based civic associations and political parties are against any efforts to negotiate with the TPLF. In a statement issued by diaspora CSOs last week, they cautioned the government against negotiations with the TPLF.

The freshly released members of Balderas for True Democracy (Balderas) also said on Thursday January 13, 2022, that the government should pursue the TPLF and destroy it.

For Abebe Assefa, a former dean of Law school at the University of Gondar, currently pursuing his PhD studies at Queen’s University in Canada, said the news of the release of TPLF prisoners came as a shock for him since it happened while millions are still displaced due to the war and remain in shelters.

“The release of the prisoners is painful, because people did not grieve for their deceased family members, the bodies of the dead lie on the fields unburied and there are places still under the occupation of the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA),” Abebe said.

But, when it comes to the confusion on the grounds of their release, he said “The wording does not affect the end result, but the concern is rather the decision to release the people branded as the heads of the criminal group by state media houses. This was inconsiderate to the heroes, who paid with their lives to apprehend these people,” Abebe added.

But for Chernet, it is not feasible to approach things in a vengeful manner and the current problem should be treated in the overarching reform, which intends to build democracy and resolve problems in a civilized manner.

“We can’t say that the blood is still fresh and we should finish each other and lead to the disintegration of the nation,” he said adding, “This is not for them but for the sake of Ethiopia.”

Had it been possible to resolve the problem militarily, it would have been resolved when the government controlled Tigray region a year ago. But the problem requires a political settlement, Chernet noted.

“We should not argue on what the government should do; we need to present alternatives based on experiences from other countries and contextualize their experiences to the local problems. Bringing alternative ideas starts from understanding the problem,” Chernet said.

He is of the view that unpopular decisions could be made for the sake of the nation and these decisions might even be more painful. And for him, people should not be mistaken that they know all of what the government knows and the way the Westerners want to resolve the problem has proven problematic.

“The war is consuming Ethiopia,” Chernet lamented.

Although Chernet believes that the intention of releasing the prisoners would help the intended national dialogue, as reasoned by the government, Abebe is of the view that the decision, will not, in any manner, help facilitate the said national dialogue.

“I don’t believe the release of the TPLF leadership would positively contribute to the said national dialogue than create a hindrance from the outset,” Abebe said.

For him, although national dialogues should be inclusive enough and require readiness to embrace all sides in addition to requiring other means of inclusivity out of the formal legal system, the approach to a national dialogue should not be a symbolic impetuous.

“First, the voice of the victims should be heard, not the perpetrators or the government. Above all, the people of Afar and Amhara, who sacrificed their children and property need to be heard; the people of Ethiopia need to be heard first,” Abebe stated.

But now, Abebe says, the people are not being listened to since these people were released for the sake of humanity, leading the public to believe that justice and the law are no longer in place.

This in turn has wider implications of demoralizing the people in the justice system since they would not rigorously seek for evidence to convict such suspects as it affects the trust of the overall justice system, Abebe observed. Although the police and prosecutors might not exploit such gaps to hide their inefficiency, such decisions affect their future investigations in similar political matters.

Chernet, however, believes that the court did not stringently demand for evidence from prosecutors, leading the government to withdraw the cases because of failures to produce evidence. He does not also believe that the court is as strong as the public demands it to be.

“I have never heard prosecutors seeking termination of cases to save themselves from embarrassment. It would be appreciable should they do so. It is also a relief for the defendants,” Chernet said.

For him, thinking of such scenarios in this country would be a luxury now.

What both lawyers agree on is that, the decision and the current development of issues call for an overhaul of the justice system.

The current problems in the country could not be approached under the normal justice system because there is a deeply entrenched impunity, the lack of institutions and accountability of governments, Chernet noted, adding, change should come in all sectors, and in order to ensure the rule of law, the country should ensure transitional justice that fits its contexts. This should follow dialogues to seek truth and focus on the future.

“We have said that it is not just a security problem. It is also a political one. Hence, we need to learn from other countries and bring about transitional justice where victims get compensated, perpetrators are forgiven and held accountable for their deeds,” he indicated.

Abebe, on the other hand, stated that, the process of withdrawal of cases should have a clear procedure and be closely monitored since such decisions are made in a manner that benefits the forces in power than the general public in whose name the decisions are said to have been made. Hence, a means to participate the general public in the decision-making process should be devised for a credible system.

Furthermore, a system of compensating victims of human rights violations need to be put in place since Ethiopia is a signatory to international laws governing such incidents. The government has the responsibility to protect its citizens as individuals or as a group and compensate victims of violations. This way, it is possible to ensure that the government actively protects its citizens, prevents instinctive measures of terminating charges and give amnesty and pardons, as well as compensate victims.

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