Ethiopia charges prominent opposition politician for role in protests

Dr. Merara Guddina (Credit: freemerera.com)

Prosecutors have charged Ethiopian opposition leader Merara Guddina for his alleged role in a yearlong series of anti-government protests, claiming that he had attempted to violently overthrow the constitutional order and breached a state of emergency declared in October.

The charges also include giving false and damaging statements about the government to the media.

Merara was arrested in Addis Ababa after a visit to the European Union Parliament where he spoke about Ethiopia’s political unrest. He has been involved in Ethiopian politics for more than two decades and is now the head of the Oromo Federalist Congress. Other party leaders including the deputy head Bekele Gerba are also in jail facing charges.

Merara has already been detained for close to three months and if convicted he will be jailed for more than ten years.

According to Kiya Tsegaye, a legal academic at the University of Turin, the opposition leader is a peaceful opponent of the government. “Merara’s prosecution will have an adverse effect on the country’s political atmosphere which is already stifled,” he says. “He is well known in advocating peaceful opposition and denouncing violence.”

Merara’s charge accuses him of working with the other co-defendants in orchestrating the anti-government protests last year. He is also accused of giving inaccurate and damaging statement about the government to the U.S. broadcaster Voice of America.

His lawyer who is also a senior member of the OFC, Wondimu Ibsa, says that the evidence the prosecutor presents was collected using the anti-terrorism proclamation but the charge itself is a criminal one. “We will see how the court is going to deal with this incongruity,” he says. “What they brought as evidences are the speeches he gave in the past four years at home and abroad as a political scholar.”

Wodima added, “The speeches were given in legal settings some which were in the presence of government officials.” Merara was a political science assistance professor at Addis Ababa University. “We hope to get him out in bail. He is someone who returns home even at the pinnacle of a political crisis,” the lawyer said.

Legal observer Kiya Tsegaya says that Merara’s prosecution signals insincerity on the part of Ethiopian official in regard to a pledge to work with opposition forces in order to address public resentments that led to the recent protests.

Ethiopia was hit by a wave of unrest starting in November 2015 when the Oromo started protesting a government-proposed master plan for the capital Addis Ababa. The protests later grew to focus on broader demands for political and economic justice. Starting last August, increasing numbers of ethnic Amhara joined the Oromo protesters, also claiming marginalization by the government that they said was dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group, which makes up only 6 per cent of the population.

According to human rights groups, more than 600 people were killed by security forces during the protests. After declaring a state of emergency, the government rounded up more than 24,000 people into detention camps, many of whom were later released after taking political trainings.

Prosecutors yesterday also charged two other figures in absentia, including Berhanu Nega, leader of the Eritrea-based rebel group Ginbot 7, whom the government has already once previously sentenced to death in absentia, and Jawar Mohammed, a prominent U.S.-based social media activist who heads the exiled satellite television broadcaster Oromo Media Network (OMN), which is banned under the state of emergency.

A copy of the prosecution charge details accusations that the defendants “attempted to disrupt constitutional order,” “became a threat to society” and “put pressure on the government.”

Jawar responded to the charges in a Tweet saying that the ruling party “put an honor on me by charging me at its kangaroo court.”