Ethiopia’s parliament in August 2017 voted to lift a state of emergency imposed since October 2016. What started as a six-month measure to quell anti-government protests, eventually lasted 10 months.
After the initial expiration in April 2017, the parliament voted a four-month extension citing the need to consolidate peace gains made during the initial period.
At the time of the first expiration, the government was reporting of successes chalked, among others, the return to peace and the downgrading of some of the ‘choking’ measures under the emergency rule.
In fact the problem is the government wants to rule in the old way (and) people are resisting to be ruled in the old way.
The Command Post tasked with enforcing the curfew had reported mass arrests at a point, followed by rehabilitation and mass release of a number of protesters. Others they said, were being processed before court.
Of the thousands that are still held in custody, one man, a major opposition voice in the country is clearly the standout figure around whom a lot of news and diplomatic back and forth revolves – Merera Gudina, Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
The arrest and continued detention of Gudina has been slammed by Human Rights Groups – particularly Human Rights Watch.
The European Union Parliament, a group of U.S. senators, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have all waded into his particular case and that of Ethiopia’s democratic space and clampdown on dissent.
Gudina, a respected university scholar has been involved in Ethiopian politics for over four decades. He has become the embodiment of the current struggle for an open and democratic Ethiopia.
This article looks back at the major highlights surrounding his arrest, detention, court appearances and vehement rejection of multiple criminal charges leveled against him by the government.
a. He was arrested two months after the state of emergency had been declared in early December 2016. Gudina was picked up at the airport whiles returning from a European trip that saw him address the EU parliament in Brussels.
b. Two weeks after his arrest, the President of the European Parliament wrote to Ethiopian President Teshome Mulatu, asking that Ethiopia makes known the charges under which the 60-year-old was arrested.
Initially, police said he was being held for flouting rules of the state of emergency, they cited his meeting with people in Brussels, persons Addis Ababa considered as terrorists. He met with other activists during the EU parliament address – one being famed Olympic protest athlete, Feyisa Lilesa.
c. On his first court appearance in December, Gudina categorically denied the charges of terrorism brought against him – he was, however, denied bail. Prosecutors plea for more time to investigate was upheld.
d. In January 2017, he made another court appearance where his legal team applied for bail. The judges turned down the request. Prosecutors pleaded yet for more time and they were granted as stipulated by Ethiopia’s terrorism law – which is strongly criticized as being highhanded.
e. On February 23, he was formally charged with multiple criminal charges along with two others. Berhanu Nega – a leading opposition figure and U.S.-based Jawar Mohammed, Execurtive Director of Oromia Media Network (OMN). OMN and another media organization, ESAT, are facing terrorism charges.
f. Human Rights Watch on 28 February, 2017 slammed the Ethiopian government for flipping on a promise to undertake political reforms at the height of the protests. Most foreign partners and governments asked Ethiopia to address the political tensions underlying the protests.
g. On his next court date, March 23, Gudina’s lawyers applied for a separate trial given that prosecutors had sought to consolidate the case against the three.
h. May 2017 was one that had the EU and US lawmakers piling pressure on Ethiopia over political reforms and democratic space. 14 U.S. Senators issued a bi-partisan call to Addis Ababa.
That was followed by two calls from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The first was a parliamentary resolution, then a letter to EU foreign affairs chief to pile pressure on Ethiopia.
Whenever the talk of releasing prisoners came up, Merera Gudina was a main point of reference. In response to the EU requests, Ethiopia called them to quit criticizing the regime but rather offer support on needed reforms.
The academician has been at the forefront of calls for marginalization against Oromos to stop. He has severally been quoted by major news portals like AFP, Reuters and Al Jazeera.
“In terms of politics, high marginalization, in terms of economy, again marginalization, in terms of cultural rights including language, high marginalization. Until the Oromos get their proper place in this country, I don’t think it is going to go.
“In fact the problem is the government wants to rule in the old way (and) people are resisting to be ruled in the old way,” Merara Gudina told Al Jazeera in 2016.
Till date, Gudina remains in custody as the terrorism trial continues. The state of emergency has been lifted, the calls for reforms rage on and opposition and rights groups – home and abroad – continue calls for release of prisoners.