Ethiopian opposition leader Jawar Mohammed and 22 others appeared in court Monday to face charges of terrorism and other crimes. Jawar, a media mogul and outspoken critic of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, was arrested in June following the killing of popular singer Hachalu Hundessa, a champion of the Oromo ethnic group. Political analysts say the charges are likely to raise tensions in Oromia, Ethiopia's largest and most populous region.
In November last year, Jawar — who runs a television channel, the Oromia Media Network — met with Prime Minister Abiy in hopes of convincing him to revise his nationalist agenda and favor more political autonomy for Ethiopia’s diverse collection of regions, including Oromia.
But the two men’s relationship fell apart and Jawar joined the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). He began campaigning against the government inside packed sport stadiums.
Then in late June, after the death of Hachalu Hundessa, Jawar and some of his loyalists joined the body en route to the singer’s hometown, Ambo.
Someone — it is unclear who — decided to hold a ceremony for the body in Addis Ababa. When a standoff between federal security officials and Jawar's supporters ensued, a police officer was shot dead and Jawar later arrested.
Authorities have now charged Jawar with inciting ethnic violence through his television channel and speeches. He’s also charged with telecommunications fraud and terrorism.
The charges could prevent Jawar from running in Ethiopia’s upcoming but still unscheduled elections.
William Davison, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, says Jawar’s potential absence could undermine the polls.
“Unless prosecutors provide convincing evidence that the Oromo opposition leaders are guilty of these grave charges, then, if they are convicted, there will be a widespread public perception, especially in Oromia, that the Ethiopian government is once again engaging in politicized prosecutions. This will make it very difficult for the authorities to run a successful election next year that is considered fair by all major actors and constituencies, and so the vote will not be the landmark democratic moment that was hoped for,” he said.
Among those who appeared in court on Monday was Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the OFC, who has also been charged with inciting violence and terrorism.
His son Samuel Bekele told VOA that after attending several pre-trial court sessions he is convinced his father’s case has been politicized.
“We expected them to come up with something a bit believable. But they just pulled the old trick," he said. "They recycled the old trick and they accused them of terrorism, telecommunication fraud and other things. It is aimed to eliminate the formidable political opponents of Abiy Ahmed. I don’t think they’re going to convict them if they follow the rule of law.”
Prime Minister Abiy said last week that Ethiopia is fully committed to its democratic transition which he began in March 2018. Writing in the Economist magazine, he reaffirmed the importance of a free press, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary and an open political space.
But he also stated that certain individuals and groups in Ethiopia “are harvesting the seeds of inter-ethnic and inter-religious division and hatred.”
Jawar’s lawyer, Kedir Bulo said Monday that both Jawar and Bekele were merely expressing their rights by giving a voice to millions belonging to the Oromo ethnic group.
“What Jawar and others have been doing for the past two years [is] challenging through the legal channels. That means, they were organizing their people so their interests [are] secured in the legal way,” said Bulo.
Jawar and the other defendants are scheduled to appear back in court on Thursday.