A year ago today, Ethiopian security forces arrested Pastor Omot Agwa and six colleagues at Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport and took them to the notorious Maekelawi police station, where torture is routine.
The arrest came several months after Omot, a respected activist from Ethiopia’s Gambella region, served as translator for the World Bank Inspection Panel. The panel investigated the Anuak indigenous people’s allegation that the Ethiopian government was committing widespread forced displacement and other serious human rights violations in relation to a World Bank project in Gambella.
The authorities eventually released four of the seven, but Omot, Ashine Astin, and Jamal Oumar Hojele were charged on September 7, under Ethiopia’s draconian counterterrorism law. The seven had been on their way to a food security workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, organized by international groups. It was described in the charge sheet as a “terrorist group meeting.”
Omot faces 20 years to life in prison, accused of being a co-founder and leader of the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM), a long inactive group that has not been designated a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian parliament. Ashine is accused of preparing a presentation titled, “Deforestation, Dispossession and Displacement of Gambela in General and Majang People in Particular.”
Sadly, their plight is a familiar story in Ethiopia. Those who criticize government policies – including development programs – are routinely arrested and accused of supporting armed opposition groups. Sometimes they are charged under the counterterrorism law. Sometimes they are not charged but are detained for lengthy periods. Sometimes they are tortured. The courts almost never investigate detainees’ allegations that they were tortured to confess. Acquittals are rare and those accused are routinely convicted without any meaningful evidence presented by the prosecution.
In recent years, Ethiopia’s government has produced economic and development progress, but accurately assessing the extent of that progress is impossible when people must risk detention or worse to express their views. As with the Oromo protesters who have been risking their lives to demonstrate over the past months, the arrest of Omot and his colleagues reminds us that the government only tolerates one view of government policies. Those who want to voice a different perspective, or who represent communities that bear the brunt of Ethiopia’s top-down, repressive policies, are silenced and sometimes accused of terrorism.