Natnael Fite @NatieFit
Addis Abeba: Judges at the Oromia Supreme Court who are presiding over the case involving 17 defendants, including two journalists from Oromia New Network (ONN), on 21 July decided to accept the charges by the prosecutor contradicting the court’s own earlier ruling asking the prosecutor to amend various parts of the charges. The judges ruled to proceed with the hearing against the defense’s argument that the substance of the amended charges by prosecutor were similar to the previous one. The Court also overruled the appeal by defendants for bail.
The 17 defendants under the file name of Qasim Abdullahi, that included ONN journalists Bikila Amenu and Dessu Dulla, who were detained in November and May 2021 subsequently, were charged on criminal and terrorism offenses in April this year under Article 27, Article 32, Article 238/1/B, as well as Article 258/A of the Criminal Code. The charges brought by the prosecutors include intent to commit crimes, committing crimes, and outrage against the constitution or the constitutional order. Under these criminal provisions, the prosecutor accused the defendants of attempting to dismantle the legally established government in Oromia regional state, and install the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government (ORNTG) in violation of article 238/1/B of the criminal code.
Additionally, the prosecutor also fielded a fourth charge under Article 258/A of the Criminal Code, specifying legal punishment provisions under “Aggravation to the Crime.” The provision under this article deals with punishment “for which the law provides the alternative of rigorous imprisonment for life or death, the Court shall pass sentence of death.” The charges also including charges of terrorism related offenses against Khalifa Abdufeta, the 7th defendant in the same file name.
Subsequently, the defense team has fielded its objections against the charges on the grounds of “principles of legality”, under Article 2 of the criminal code, as well as article 19 and article 29 of the federal constitution on the basis of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, among others.
The defense team argued that the activities of establishing the said Oromia Regional National Transitional Government were organized peacefully under the auspices of a legally registered opposition party, specifically the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The party has publicly declared the need for establishing a transitional government in Oromia regional state, the defense team argued, including by issuing officials press releases where there was no violence committed by any of their clients. The defense also argued that official letters describing OLF’s political alternatives were submitted to various offices within the Oromia state government , and civil servants, rendering the prosecutors argument of of allegations of violence irrelevant.
Additionally, the defense team argued that the terrorism charges against the 7th defendant Khalifa Abdufeta, and the alleged accusation against him of “supporting OLF/Shene professionally and with information” were mere allegations which were not backed by actual evidences. Invoking Article 258, which is a provision about punishment, merits no legal proceeding and was only done to create psychological duress on the defendants.
At a hearing on 07 July, the Oromia Supreme Court has accepted the defense’s argument against the prosecutor’s invocation of article 258 and ordered prosecutors to amend the charges including removing the article from the remaining charges on the basis that punishment provisions cannot be discussed during ongoing trials. The Court also accepted the defense’s argument on the need to amend the charges under article 238/1/B of the criminal code, lack of evidence against the 7th defendant who is charged under terrorism offenses, as well as the request for the prosecutors to separate the charges that summarily accused all the 17 defendants without indicating the allegations against each defendant.
However, the Prosecutor returned to the next hearing on 18 July with no amendment to the charges under Article 258, as well as the remaining order from the Court, including on the order for evidence against the 7th defendant, as per the ruling from the court, prompting the defense team to file for dismissal of the charges against their clients on the basis that prosecutors were unable to comply with the Court’s orders and other irregularities. The Court however ordered the prosecutor the a second time to amend the charges, which led to the defendants to file an appeal for the removal of the judges from the bench on the basis of bias and unfairness.
The defense team lost the appeal for the removal of the judges, as well as the appeal for the dismissal of the charges, leading to the hearing on Thursday 21 July.
Tolemariam Magarsa, legal counsel to the defendants, told Addis Standard that the appeal filed by the defendants for the dismissal of the charges after Prosecutors failed to amend the charges under Article 258 was ruled void. “The court stated that the major points in the charge were not listed under Article 258, but under article 238 of the criminal code; for this reason, the defendants’ appeal was dropped and the amended charges by the prosecutor were accepted,” he said.
But according to Milkias Bulcha, another member of the defense team, the court’s decision on 21 July to proceed with the hearing contravened its own decision earlier ordering the prosecutors to amend the charges. “The prosecutor did not comply with the court’s ruling for amendment and the court’s decision to proceed with the hearing contravened its own earlier decision that sought for amendment in the charges,” Milkias told Addis Standard.
Subsequently, according to Tolemariam, the defendants began giving their defense arguments against prosecutor’s charges that establishing the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government (ORNTG) constitutes no offense, which is guaranteed by the constitution under the right to expression. The defendants also said that official letters on the political programs were sent to the Oromia Police Commission, Oromia President’s office Oromia Justice Bureau, the regional parliament, and other concerned institutions and civil service offices peacefully and with no crimes committed. ‘’
Furthermore, legal defense team’s request for bail has been overturned by the court.
“The defendants have known addresses, they have responsibilities delegated to them by their party, they can’t evade the law and taking into consideration the stress their families are under as well as the impacts on the party’s work,” Tolemariam said explaining why the defense team fielded for bail. However, the prosecutor objected the request on the grounds that that the defendants have no addresses and pose a flight risk.
Although the Court has rejected the request for bail, it adjourned another hearing on 02 August to review and decide on the matter.
Most of 17 defendants were arrested in November last year and are detained at Dalati police station in Sabata town, in Oromia Regional State Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne. Except for the two journalists, the remaining 15 are members of the opposition party OLF serving in various capacities, AS