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Elders Play Major Role in Recent Ethiopian Pardons

On July 20th, the Ethiopian government announced the pardons of 38 opposition leaders and activists, many of whom had been sentenced to life in prison. They had been convicted in connection with political violence that erupted after the 2005 parliamentary elections. The pardons may be an example of African solutions to African problems. Ethiopian elders were at the heart of negotiations.

Dr. Ephraim Isaac – an expert on Ethiopian history, near eastern studies and religion – is the leader of the elders.

“I belong to a coalition of elders, whose roots go back to around 1988, 1989, during the period of the civil war in Ethiopia. A group of elders at that time had been assembled to try to create some kind of forum for the various conflicting parties,” he says.

The elders’ coalition eventually became the Peace and Development Committee of which Ephraim is now chairman of the board. He says elders were involved early on in the cases of those arrested.

“We are watching to see if there’s any conflict arising between any groups or government. So, whenever there’s such a problem we approach. We write a letter or we’ll call and say we would like to be helpful. So it was our own initiative,” he says.

He says about five months ago, there was a chance to settle all the cases before anyone went to trial.

“Before the courts were at all involved, the government did come to a position where they would be willing to withdraw the case. There would be no court process. But while we were trying to mediate and facilitate the agreement time passed and then the judge felt they had to keep moving forward. So then the judge got involved in it, and then once the judge got involved in it then the government could no longer do what was originally promised to us, which is to withdraw the case,” says Ephraim.

Once the defendants were sentenced, he says, the elders were free to once again negotiate with the government about releasing the detainees. The detainees eventually signed a document accepting some of the blame for the post-election violence.

During the trials, many of the defendants called the case against them a politically motivated charade. As a result, many refused to present a legal defense despite court orders to do so.

“No document is acceptable to both sides. We had to shuttle back and forth to look at the document and see what words are acceptable to the government and what words are acceptable to the detainees. And that really required a lot of skill and a lot of elders participating<’ he says.

Dr. Hailesslassie Belay is another of the elders who took part in the negotiations.

“The wording was very, very difficult because what the detainees wanted the government did not want. This was a very big problem,” he says.

The former UN official and first director of the Peace and Development Committee for Ethiopia says outside pressure did not help matters.

“The United States, the Europeans, especially the Europeans, were trying to use pressure and force to press the government to release them altogether. The government did not want to accept this kind of thing. They considered it a sort of colonialism,” says Belay.

Ephraim Isaac says the pardons stem from Ethiopian tradition.

“We were operating, you see, on the basis that in our tradition, we have many, many examples of people in conflict coming to some agreement because they respect the concept of spiritual forgiveness. Ethiopians are a very spiritual people,” he says.

He says that most Ethiopians feel that people who ask for forgiveness are heroes and those who forgive are saints.

The US State Department praised the work of the elders. It also commended the Ethiopian government for its statesmanship and the detainees for their commitment to advancing democracy.