Ethiopian lawyers ask Abiy to free jailed opponents before polls

Ethiopian lawyers ask Abiy to free jailed opponents before polls

Jawar Mohammed, one of Ethiopia’s opposition leaders currently in jail.

A team of Ethiopian lawyers has called on Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed to release opposition politicians who were jailed in connection to a deadly unrest in July.

Ethiopia on Friday announced that it will hold the general elections on June 5, 2021, after delaying a planned vote in August due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the lawyers argue that the decision to conduct the national elections while Abiy’s potential opponents are still in prison will affect the holding of a fair and democratic election.

“Ethiopia cannot conduct free and democratic elections while critical voices who represent serious electoral challenges to PM Abiy Ahmed are locked behind bars” said Kedir Bulo, one of the 12 lawyers representing Jawar Mohammed, Ethiopia’s leading opposition figure.

“This makes a mockery of the election itself and basically repeats the trends of the last three decades, only under a new and different type of dictatorship,” Kedir stressed.

Another lawyer, Abduletif Elemo, said Jawar and other prominent politicians must be released “without any preconditions” in order to take part in the national elections. 

Mr Jawar is known for helping the current Ethiopian prime minister to get to power in 2018. But the two former allies have turned out to be bitter opponents.

Terrorism charges

Jawar has been openly and strongly criticising Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, for not doing enough to address the long-standing grievances of the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group which they both belong to.

Jawar and 23 others are facing terrorism charges. They are also accused of telecom fraud, inciting ethnic clashes and other criminal activities connected to a deadly the unrest that rocked the capital Addis Ababa and parts of the Oromia region in July.

According to his lawyers, Jawar is accused of training a terrorist group in Egypt, an allegation he denies.

Mr Kedir says the accusations brought against his clients are unfounded.

“This is totally bizarre but it was clear to the accused that the government is unhinged and would make up shocking conspiracies to demonise our clients and their causes.

“The allegation is that Jawar recruited former members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and sent them to training camps via Kenya with a plan to overthrow Abiy government.

“The government has been keen to try to link every opposition politician to Egypt because this is productive to the PM’s domestic politics,” said Kedir.

Politically motivated

Mr Kedir and his team of lawyers believe the charges against Jawar and other political figures are politically motivated.

“It is more or less a politically motivated charge designed to keep them out of the next election and from influencing Ethiopia’s journey through these turbulent times,” said Kedir.

“It reveals how political this trial is,” he added.

Boycott elections

Some opposition parties have threatened to boycott the upcoming general elections in protest over the arrests of their leaders.

Among them is OLF which has accused Abiy’s Prosperity party of arresting its members and leaders.

“Although OLF wants to take part in the election, it is practically impossible under current circumstances as almost all our members, leaders and supporters that are potential candidates and observers are in prison,” the party said in a statement.

Considering the realities on ground, questions are being raised on whether Ethiopia will conduct a proper and democratic election.

“Before conducting the election, there seems a big homework left [to be done]. The political atmosphere must be made free from polarisation that made everything a point of contention,” says Kedir.

He stressed that there is need for a genuine dialogue among conflicting parties to avert further domestic skirmishes.

“This can be effected only when a genuine dialogue is made with a proper political forces .The problem is that those proper political figures seem denied that access.”

He also doubts if opposition parties are in a position to take part in the elections.

“Even if their leaders are released, there won’t be enough time for preparations,” Kedir added.