An Ethiopian court trying two anti-poverty activists for commiting an alleged crime of “outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order” have adjourned their trial after hearing their arguments. Proceedings will resume on October 8, when the court will give judgment. The agenda will give Daniel Bekele, the policy manager of ActionAid Ethiopia, and Netsanet Demissie, general manager of the Organization for Social Justice in Ethiopia, two more months in prison while the court takes its annual recess. ActionAid England Executive DIrector Richard Miller explains that Bekele and Demissie were detained in November, 2005, along with recently released opposition political leaders for organizing anti-poverty awareness groups and engaging in what he calls legal political monitoring activities.
“Daniel and Netsanet were involved in a number of civil society activities. Partly, they were members of the Global Call for Action Against Poverty, which is a worldwide movement calling upon governments to do more to tackle poverty. Secondly, they were also involved in election monitoring and post-election peace initiatives. All those activities are fully in line with the constitution. They were fully legal,” he said.
Whereas 129 other dissidents were also charged by the Ethiopian courts, the 40-year-old Bekele and Demissie, 29, are the only two still on trial. Richard Miller makes clear the two defendants are determined to present their case because they are convinced of their innocence and want to clear their names using due process of the law.
“They want to demonstrate in presenting their defense that they were upholding civil society values and that they were far from undermining the constitution. Their ideas were geared to protecting it and safeguarding it,” he pointed out.”
Since they always maintained their innocence against the charges, says Miller, Bekele and Demissie declined to sign a waiver-style confessional document drawn up by the Ethiopian government, which a majority of other dissidents felt compelled to do to win their pardons and release from jail.
“When some of the political leaders and so on were offered this way out to signing a document and admitting their guilt and asking for pardons, Daniel and Netsanet didn’t want to sign that document, since they considered themselves not guilty, and they wanted the opportunity to present their defense and to show in court that the activities they were doing, far from undermining the constitution, were actually in support of strengthening the constitution. Subsequent to the others signing the documents, they’ve been able to present their defense, which took place over the last ten days, and they’ve now concluded that. They called 29 witnesses. They are still in prison, whereas the majority of others are released now, so that’s quite a hardship for them,” he says.