By Mahlet Fasil
On January 19th an Ethiopian federal high court 14th criminal bench sentenced 16 Ethiopian Muslims to seven years each. Prosecutors allege that all the 16 defendants were involved in terrorist activities in the capital Addis Abeba and Wolqite, some 171 km west of the of Addis Abeba. Defendants include 1st defendant Elias Kedir, 2nd and 3rd defendants Tifiq Mohammed and Fayisel Argaw respectively.
The current sentencing of the 16 Muslims followed another sentencing in August last year of eighteen Ethiopian Muslims including four members of the Ethiopian Muslim arbitration committee and a journalist to a lengthy jail term between seven and 22 years. The eighteen Muslims were charged on counts that include attempted terrorism, conspiracy to establish an Islamic state, and public incitement.
Muslims in Ethiopia were protesting since 2011 against what many of them say were uncalled for interference by the government in the affairs of their religion. Ethiopian Muslims in many cities and towns have staged Friday sit-in-protests for nearly two years demanding restoration of the Awoliya College and Secondary School administration sacked by the government in Dec. 2011; a free and fair election without the interference of the government to replace members of the Islamic Supreme Council (Mejlis), again sacked by the government in 2011; and an end to the government’s attempt to publish and distribute books which carry new Islamic teaching called Al-Habesh. The government denies all accusations but claims Awoliya College and Secondary School, a highly regarded Islamic school based in Addis Abeba, has become a breeding ground for radicalism and Wahabism.
The peaceful protests came to a disturbing twist on Monday Oct. 29th 2012 when a federal court in Addis Abeba decided to charge 29 Muslim protesters who were arrested in July of the same year with “plotting acts of terrorism” under the country’s infamous anti-terror proclamation.
Many the 18 sentenced in August 2014 were members of the Ethiopian Muslim arbitration committee who volunteered to negotiate with the government in order to seek solutions to narrow the widening gap between Muslims and the government.
According to prosecutors, the 16 defendants who were sentenced today were acting to replace the previously detained members of the arbitration committee that include prominent Muslim scholar Abubakar Ahmed. The prosecutors also allege that the first defendant, Elias Kedir, has organized a terrorist cell called “Cell one B’ and was responsible for inciting violence inside mosques during Friday prayers.
All defendants say prosecutors’ claims were baseless and maintain their innocence. They have also complained of lack of access to their lawyers and visits from family members during their detention.
The Muslim protests that began in Dec. 2011, the subsequent arrest and trial of senior members of the Muslim and community, activists triggered one of the most disciplined and sustained Friday sit-in protests by hundreds of thousands of Muslim protestors here in Addis Abeba and other major towns throughout the country and an online activism on twitter and facebook by an underground group called ‘Dimtsachin Yisema’ (let our voices be heard).
The trials previously of the 18 members of the arbitration committee has attracted several criticisms from various rights organizations including the African union Human Rights commission, which called for a through and independent investigation on the matter.