On April 15, 2016, the Ethiopian Federal High Court acquitted two men, Yoantan Wolde and Bahiru Degu, who spent more than 600 days incarcerated on terrorism charges that critics allege were politically motivated. Zelalem Workagenehu, a third man, was not so lucky. He was convicted and will be sentenced on May 10. (On April 26, the public prosecutor submitted a sentence aggravation statement to the court, and Workagenehu was asked to file a sentence mitigation letter on his part.) Workagenehu is a human rights advocate and a scholar who regularly contributed to the diaspora-run website DeBirhan.
All three were accused under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terror Proclamation, which was adopted in July 2009. State officials defend the law, saying it is modeled on existing legislation in countries such as the United Kingdom.
Wolde and Degu were released after spending 647 days—almost two years—in prison, demonstrating a disturbing trend in Ethiopia where prisoners of conscience are locked away for long periods without a trial.
In what seemed to be a show of brute force, plainclothes security officers re-arrested Wolde and Degu shortly after they left prison on April 18. The two men were held overnight at Maekelawi (Central) Prison, before being released again and warned that they’re still under observation. “They would be killed if they made any moves,” their relatives say.
Workagenehu was initially charged in October 2014, along with a group of nine other defendants that included Internet users, opposition politicians, and activists. So far, seven people in this group have been acquitted after spending more than a year in jail, after which they signed what they now say were false confessions, in order to escape further torture.
The charges against Workagenehu include leading a terrorist organization (which is how the government came to define Ginbot 7, a pro-democracy political party founded by Berhanu Nega), conspiring to overthrow the government, and disseminating false information through reports on websites run by the diaspora. For instance, one of Workagenehu’s coauthors on the De Birhan Blog was also implicated in the case.
The case was later reduced to two charges: recruiting members to start an Arab-Spring-like revolution in Ethiopia and co-facilitating what the government says was a “training operation to terrorize the country.” (Workagenehu says it was actually a training camp to build digital communication, social media, and leadership.)
Wolde and Degu were charged with applying to the participate in Workagenehu’s training camp, and suspected of joining Ginbot 7. (They denied these accusations.)
In his ruling, the judge reportedly said that applying to or participating in such training exercises was not illegal and so Wolde and Degu should be acquitted. Despite their two years behind bars, Wolde and Degu aren’t entitled to any form of compensation. It’s not year clear if they intend to press the matter in court.
Bahiru Degu, who attended his former co-defendant’s trial this week, struggles the most among the three men. He told the court he experienced extensive torture during the first three months of his detention:
I was forced to get naked and was regularly beaten. Due to the severity of the beating, I was unable to control my bowels [sic]. I was forced to drink my own urine.
Like Degu, Workagenehu and Wolde also told the court about the severity of the torture committed against them in prison, saying guards were trying to force them to sign false confessions. A recent report published by Human Rights Watch revealed that Ethiopian investigators and police do abuse journalists and opposition activists, in order to extract confessions:
Police investigators at Maekelawi use coercive methods on detainees amounting to torture or other ill-treatment to extract confessions, statements, and other information from detainees. Detainees are often denied access to lawyers and family members. Depending on their compliance with the demands of investigators, detainees are punished or rewarded with denial or access to water, food, light, and other basic needs.