On July 6, Ethiopia’s Federal High Court convicted leaders of the Ethiopian Muslims protest movement on charges of terrorism and conspiracy to create an Islamic state in Ethiopia. The verdict — against two Muslim journalists, 10 activists and six members of the Ethiopian Muslims Arbitration Committee — came after three years of a politically motivated trial whose outcome was long ago determined. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 3.
The trial and the verdict against the Muslim leaders is a political spectacle designed to conceal the regime’s reindoctrination campaign and silence long-standing grievances of the Muslim population. The crackdown on Muslim activists is part of the ruling party’s larger crusade against journalists, bloggers, activists and opposition leaders and supporters.
A peaceful movement
The Ethiopian Muslims movement was organized around the community’s three core demands: ending the government’s continued control of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the official Islamic authority in Ethiopia; terminating the controversial reindoctrination of Ethiopian Muslims launched by the government in July 2011; and reopening the Awoliya College, the country’s only Muslim college. Authorities closed the institution in 2011, alleging it had become a breeding ground for radicals.
While the government has always controlled the council, it was Awoliya’s closure and the coercive reindoctrination campaign that triggered the confrontation. The government denies allegations of interference and control of religious institutions, but a leaked audio from the initial indoctrination sessions shows that it has invited preachers from Lebanon to introduce Al-Ahbash, a supposedly moderate sect of Sunni Islam, to Ethiopia.
Authorities arrested members of the Arbitration Committee in July 2012 after negotiations with the government failed, and they were charged with “intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause” by force, signaling the impending criminalization of the peaceful movement.
Repressive political ends
Since the disputed 2005 elections and the mass arrests of opposition leaders and journalists, the use of court proceedings for repressive political ends has become one of the signature traits of the Ethiopian government. The primary purpose of these administrative acts disguised as criminal proceedings is the elimination of political opposition and critical voices. These trials function not to adjudicate legal disputes but to remove actors from the democratic sphere. The judicial machinery is set in motion not to determine guilt or innocence but to sustain and consolidate the government’s authoritarian stranglehold on its people.
In order to build a coherent narrative, the government often recasts genuine grievances as a national security threat and reconfigures activism as criminal offenses. For example, it accused the jailed Muslim leaders of working in tandem with foreign terrorist groups to destabilize Ethiopia and undo its economic progress. By dramatizing the impending danger and alleged links to regional militant groups such as Somalia’s Al-Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the defendants’ prolonged trial was used to create an alternative reality manufactured by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
The accused Muslim leaders see their actions as a defense of the constitution and their trial as persecution — a dubious plot to delegitimize their peaceful protests against the injustices of the state.
The government presented various forms of evidence — including documents, audio and video of sermons and speeches by the defendants, witness testimonies and material obtained through surveillance. However, most of the evidence was presented in closed sessions, and the accused were not given adequate opportunities for cross-examination. The government has deployed stealth propaganda to incriminate the defendants. Since the committee members’ arrests, authorities have produced two fake documentaries intended to generate images and narratives of terrorism to scare Christian Ethiopians and Western observers, in flagrant violation of the presumption of defendants’ innocence until proven guilty.
The verdict of history
The accused Muslim leaders see their actions as a defense of the constitution and their trial as persecution — a dubious plot to delegitimize their peaceful protests against the injustices of the state. The government misrepresented their cause in a desperate attempt to suppress their aspiration and consolidate its control over religious institutions and doctrines.
As the judge read out the verdict, one of the committee members accused the judge of being complicit in the perversion of justice and reading a judgment “written by the security establishment,” according to defense lawyers. “We appear before this court not because we thought that this court is an institution of truth and justice that judges without fear of favor but to clarify the historical record,” another defendant said.
The trial has been an occasion for the defendants to mount their objection to the government’s oppressive narratives and expose its abuse of institutions of truth and justice. As part of their struggle over the historical record, the committee members petitioned Africa’s top human rights watchdog, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to intervene in the matter. Given the justice system’s lack of independence, the defendants are seeking to present their version of events before an independent international institution, contesting the allegations and images the government created in a trial in which it is both prosecutor and judge. In February 2015 the commission granted a provisional measure, asking Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to undertake a full investigation into allegations of torture and other violations of due process rights.
The EPRDF is using counterterrorism as carte blanche to consolidate its authoritarian control over the country. Meanwhile, the United States, Ethiopia’s close ally in the global war on terrorism, has turned a blind eye to the misuse and abuse of its counterterrorism funding. President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Addis Ababa would be seen as yet another seal of approval for the regime’s repressive practices and the ruling party’s landslide victory in the recent elections. Ethiopia’s sudden and unexplained release of journalists and bloggers ahead of Obama’s visit later this month is a strategic move meant to assuage Washington’s concerns and to minimize the bad publicity around their continued incarceration.
Regardless of the outcome of these trials, history’s judgment will be different. In the verdict of history and the archives and repertoires of the oppressed, these individuals, like many who came before them, will be seen as victims of a grotesque system of justice.