Three months after Ethiopian security forces arrested opposition leader Dr. Merera Gudina upon his return to Ethiopia, following his participation in a hearing at the European parliament about the crisis in his home country, prosecutors on Thursday charged the prominent 60-year-old politician with rendering support to terrorism and attempting to “disrupt constitutional order.” Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lelisa and the head of the banned opposition group Ginbot 7, Dr. Berhanu Nega, had also participated in the hearing that had been hosted by Member of the European Parliament Ana Gomes, and which was to inform delegates about the protests that have swept through Ethiopia since November 2015. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands detained since these protests began. Merera is now at Maekelawi, a prison where mistreatment and torture are commonplace.
Merera is the chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), a legally registered political opposition party. He joins many other senior OFC leaders facing terrorism charges over the last 18 months. Among those presently standing trial is OFC deputy chairman Bekele Gerba. Prosecutors included as evidence of his crimes a video of Bekele at an August 2016 conference in Washington, DC, where he spoke of the importance of nonviolence and commitment to the electoral process. Like Merera, he has been a moderate voice of dissent in a highly polarized political landscape.
Merera and Bekele join a long list of opposition politicians, journalists, and protesters charged under the 2009 anti-terrorism law, regularly used to stifle critical views of governance in Ethiopia. Acquittals are rare, credible evidence is often not presented, and trials are marred by numerous due process concerns.
During the state of emergency – called by the government in October 2016 in response to the crisis and to crush the growing protests – the Ethiopian government publicly committed to undertake “deep reform” and engage in dialogue with opposition parties to address grievances. Instead of taking actions that would demonstrate genuine resolve to address long-term grievances, the government again used politically motivated charges to further crack down on opposition parties, reinforcing a message that it will not tolerate peaceful dissent. This raises serious questions regarding the government’s commitment to “deep reform” and dialogue with the opposition. Instead of responding to criticism with yet more repression, the Ethiopian government should release opposition politicians jailed for exercising their basic rights, including Bekele and Merera. Only then can a meaningful and constructive dialogue with opposition parties take place that can begin to address long-term grievances.