Breaking the mold
The Government of Ethiopia (GoE) released high-profile prisoners and detainees including Andargachew Tsige and other former government officials and individuals charged with grand corruption cases, this week. Though the release of the prisoners were viewed as a positive political development, one question which keeps coming up this week is on what the grounds these officials suspected and convicted of corruption charges are going free, writes Neamin Ashenafi and Brook Abdu.
It is to be remembered that having completed its Executive Committee meeting back in January 2018, leaders of the ruling party the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) went on the public media to declare the decision of the Front to release “politicians who are in prison or standing trial" in the interest of opening up the political space and deepen democracy. Apart from this rare decision, leaders of the four constituting parties of EPRDF also announced that their government is preparing to shut down Meakelawi, the infamous detention and investigation center, at heart of Addis Ababa.
Following this announcement, the Attorney General was tasked in working out the details of this decision and to announce the release of prisoners from different detention centers across the country. The then Attorney General, Getachew Ambaye, accordingly, announced the termination of a total of 528 ongoing cases involving politicians and other suspects at the federal and regional level.
Accordingly, 413 cases were selected from the Southern Regional State while the rest 115 cases were at the federal. Capitalizing on the government’s decision, additional 746 prisoners including renowned political commentator and former newspaper publisher, Eskinder Nega, opposition politician, Andualem Arage, Chair and Deputy Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, walked out of prison. Following the release of these personalities, different international and local political activists were calling for further widening of the political space and better media environment in Ethiopia.
Dropping the charges on the remaining members of the Zone 9 bloggers’ group followed cAme next. The bloggers whose charges were dropped are Natnael Feleke, Befekadu Hailu and Atnaf Berhane, who were charged by the infamous anti-terrorism proclamation.
This commitment continued even after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) took office two months ago; and last week, on the hill of the 27th year celebration of the toppling of the military regime, the PM decided to release some 500 prisoners which include prominent politicians and political activists such as Andargachew Tsige.
Moreover, the list of the prisoners, who have been pardoned last week, include members of outlawed political parties–Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ginbot 7 (G7) – that are designated as terrorist organizations by the House of People’s Representatives (HPR).
Andargachew, who was the secretary general of Ginbot 7, was held in undisclosed location since 2014. He was abducted by Ethiopian security forces in Yemen, Sana and brought to Ethiopia.
Since then, there have been social media campaigns from the opposition camp and his party for the release of Andargachew.
Andargachew, married to a British citizen, Yemserach Hailemariam, is a father of three. Andargachew was part of the EPRDF-led government in the early 1990’s following the overthrow of the military regime.
Though many Ethiopians welcomed the release of Andargachew and other political prisoners, the release of the officials and other individuals who were charged with corruption raised different concerns and questions. What is the ground for the release of these individuals after it has been said that these individuals and officials has embezzled billions of birr form the coffins of the government?
However, according Yeshiwas Assefa, president of Blue Party, the detention of officials and individuals was no doubt a politically motivated arrest.
“The government applied two different proclamations to silence dissenting views,” Yeshiwas says, “While the anti-terrorism proclamation was applied to silence political opposition, journalists and other individuals who stood against the wrong doings of the regime, similarly the anti-corruption proclamation was applied to purge on its own officials who were developing different perspectives or regarded as a threat to the regime.” Therefore, he argues, the release was also equally politically motivated; so is the release, Yeshiwas argues.
Yeshiwas further argues that the detained officials are not the only ones that are corrupt in the regime; rather they are victims of the politically motivated charges and decisions. As the Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet Solon once said, Yeshiwas explains, “Laws are like the cobwebs, if some light or powerless things fall into them, they hold it fast, but if a thing of any great size falls into them, it breaks through and escapes”. Therefore, according to him those who were detained are the small fishes.
By the same token, Mulugeta Aregawi, an instructor at the Addis Ababa University School of Law, shared Yeshwas’s idea and says, those individuals who were detained due to corruption charges were not because the government is determined and willing to eradicate corruption; it is rather politically motivated.
“No consistent measures have been taken by EPRDF, despite its admittance that corruption is an existential threat to the regime. Therefore, there is no rule of law rather there is rule of politics. If there is rule of law almost all government officials would have been detained,” Mulugeta argues firmly.
Yohannes Woldegebriel, a legal professional, welcomed the decision by the government to release the prisoners because according to him the decision might lay a foundation to build consensus, peace and reconciliation.
However, Yohannes questioned the legal process by which these detainees were released, “Is there any room for judges; if the court says no, do you think these individuals would not be granted the pardon; I don’t think that they have such room since the decision comes from the executive.”
From the very beginning, the individuals were detained by the order of the executive body and now the charges are being dropped by the decision coming form the same body. Therefore, it is more of political decision than a decision that passed through the legal procedure and process of the country.
Yohannes is bothered by the sheer disregard for legal basis of granting pardon. “What is the basis to grant pardon or withdraw charges in line with the legal process
of the country?” he asks. And argues that what we are seeing is a decision that comes from the executive body of the government.
Similarly, Mulugeta shared this view and said, “even though the Attorney General is endowed with the power to withdraw charges according to the law, I really don’t understand the rationale of the attorney general to pardon and withdraw the charges in this situation.”
Regardless of his reservations on the due process, Mulugeta regards the decision as something with positive effect, if it really brings and restores peace and stability in the country.
On the other hand, Yohannes who also welcomes the decision to pardon and withdraw charges recommends another platform to address these issues of releasing the detainees. “There are many groups that stands against the regime such ONLF and the ones based in Eritrea; therefore to address such issues once and for all, without disrupting the legal system of the country, it is wise if the government issued an announcement of amnesty to all groups both in the country and abroad,” Yohannes recommends.
But, despite the existing differences in the decisions made in the past few months in the country the new administration led by PM Abiy seems to try something new, as an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor, Richard Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”