A trial began today for Ethiopian opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders arrested after violent anti-government riots last year. Some of the defendants pled not guilty in a court in the capital, Addis Ababa. The trial was adjourned until March 1st. 129 people face charges, including attempted genocide and treason, which carry a maximum sentence of death.
The charges relate to two separate protests last year over disputed elections in May. More than 80 people were killed in the clashes. About 40 of the people charged are abroad and are being tried in absentia. The group includes five Voice of America journalists in Washington who have worked with VOA's Amharic-language service.
Amnesty International is calling on Ethiopia to release the detainees. Amnesty says they were imprisoned, in its words, "solely on account of their non-violent opinions and activities." The official results of the elections declared the party of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi the winner. But the opposition says they were rigged and it was robbed of victory.
Fitsum Acham-Yeleh is a lawyer in private practice here in Washington. He told English to Africa reporter Ashenafi Abedje what he thinks of the adjournment of the trial on its first day: “The fact that it was adjourned [will] jeopardize the defendants because they still have no opportunity to be heard by this court of law. This [will allow] the government to gather new evidence and silence these people.”
Some say the integrity of the trial has been jeopardized by the refusal of the defendants to testify in their own behalf.
However, Fitsum says the integrity of the judicial process has already been compromised: “The three judges are appointed by the government. If the defendants lose the case and appeal, they are appealing before the chief judge of the country, who is the chairman of the election board – against whom they were voicing their opinion. So, they don’t want to be part of a process where they do not get fair trial.”
Fitsum also says he does not believe that the attendance of foreign observers at the trial would benefit the defendants. (English to Africa 2/23)