By Omer Redi -ADDIS ABABA , Aug 19 (IPS) – He has not yet decided where and when it will be, but Ethiopia’s sensational musician Tewodros Kassahun a.k.a. Teddy-Afro, will stage a major concert for the first time after his release from controversial imprisonment.
Tewodros is famous and sensational for his strong lyrics; including some that depict the ruling party as no different from its dictatorial predecessor.
The 32-year-old singer was first arrested by investigators of the Addis Ababa Police Commission in November 2006. He was accused of killing Degu Yibeltal, a homeless teenage boy in a hit-and-run motor vehicle accident.
However, Tewodros has always claimed that he was out of the country on the date of the accident and there has been view in the public that the government incriminated Teddy to punish him for his too critical lyrics.
But his stay in prison hasn’t put him off singing and Tewodros is to start performing again with a big concert. “Possibly it is with a big concert that I will meet Ethiopian people,” Tewodros told IPS the day after his release on parole after 16 months in prison.
He said he learnt a lot in prison and he considers the “trying time” as a part of his life that made him stronger. He added he managed to write some poems during his incarceration but he could not compose lyrics because he could not access musical instruments.
“I need a long break now,” he said.
On the day of Tewodros’s release, August 13, he was brought to the deserted compound of the Federal High and First Instance courts.
The court yard was deserted because during Ethiopia’s main rainy season, courts are in recess for two months.
Quite contrary to experiences in the past year, during which time Teddy was brought to this court more than 20 times for trial, there were no fans: none knew that he would be brought to court.
Rather, as many expected his release the previous day, they had been waiting more than 10kms away, in front of the prison centre on both days.
Tewodros’s application for parole was made last Thursday afternoon. It was supported by the recommendation by Kality Prison Centre – the largest and highly secured detention facility in Addis Ababa. It is where politicians like Bertukan Mideksa, a prominent female opposition politician and former judge, are also kept.
Ethiopia’s law entitles a convict for release on parole after serving a third of their sentence if the prison administration recommends the release to court stating he has been on good behaviour during his term. The recommendation is initiated upon the prisoner’s application for parole stating that he understands the supremacy of the law and regrets his acts.
Judge Leul Gebremariam, who originally sentenced Tewodros to six years imprisonment and a fine of 18,000 Birr (about $1,500) in December, was the man who granted Tewodros his freedom.
Leul told the singer that the court accepted his application for parole and the prison’s recommendation. The judge wished Tewodros “good luck” but also reminded him that if he commits any crime in the next two years the parole will be revoked.
Though many expected his release this time around, his homecoming at dusk that Thursday came as a surprise to his mother, Tilaye Arage.
“When he got into the compound, I was (so) shocked that I could not even stand straight,” his mother told IPS the next day as she was hosting flocking relatives and friends, as well as fans of her son.
Many of Teddy Afro’s fans have resolutely stood by him during his trial and incarceration. His popular 2005 album was released during the country’s elections and many of the songs called for change. It is because of this that many believe there is political conspiracy behind his imprisonment.
“I don’t accept that Teddy committed the crime,” Eskendir Abel, owner of Ebaw Promotion and a devoted fan of Tewodros said.
Eskendir’s company – host of the annual Miss Virgin Beauty Contest, a beauty pageant for virgin girls – is going to devote part of this year’s contest as a welcome event to the singer.
An excited Eskendir described Teddy’s release as one of the most wonderful moments in his life.
“I think he was imprisoned mainly for his strong lyrics that are too critical of the government,” said a young fan requesting anonymity.
Nonetheless, Tewodros appears to be timid of the issue of his guilt. “I would rather not comment on that,” Teddy said. He is rather cautious in his comments to media.
But the evidence of his trial is there for all to see. When the Federal High Court heard the trial, four witnesses testified against Tewodros – all police constables brought by the prosecutor.
But earlier in the trial Teddy said he was out of Ethiopia the night Degu was killed. He argued that the date of his arrival into the country, as indicated on his passport, was November 3. Degu was found dead on the night of November 2, 2006.
But the High Court found him guilty of killing Degu while driving a private blue-black BMW.
According to Ethiopia’s penal code, the penalty for the death of a hit-and-run victim ranges from five to 15 years of imprisonment and fine up to maximum of 15,000Br ($1,250).
The pop-star was sentenced last December by the High Court to six years imprisonment and fine of 18,000Br ($1,500) after he was found guilty on two counts: homicide, including driving without license; and hit-and-run manslaughter.
Immediately after sentencing, his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court. The court reduced the sentence by four years, and the fine to 11,000Br ($916) in February.
Tewodros’s two-year prison sentence was calculated inclusive of the time he already served and in February he was 13 months away from freedom.
But with eight months of his prison term still remaining, the judge who sentenced him changed his mind and decided that Tewodros should be released earlier.
“We accept the court’s decision,” Shimeles Kemal, a government spokesperson told IPS.
But he ferociously reacted to the view that Teddy’s imprisonment is politically motivated saying “it is highly flawed accusation”. “The final arbiter that determines guilt is the court and that institution found him guilty of the crime,” Shimeles said. “This is an ordinary crime with no relation to politics and the convict was sentenced accordingly.”
Despite the government’s persistent argument that “no one would be imprisoned for holding an opinion”, critics of government say Teddy’s case clearly represents how government reacts to political dissent.
Yet, for others his release represents a milestone change in the ruling party’s long established iron-fist attitude.
“This is quite a change from the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front’s ‘only my way’ of handling things that we have seen for the past 18 years,” an independent media expert told IPS on condition of anonymity.