With her husband a political prisoner in Ethiopia, Minnesota woman fears the worst
By Faiza Mahamud Star Tribune
(startribune)—Arfasse Gemeda is worried about whether she will see her husband again.
Jawar Mohammed, a media influencer turned politician, traveled from Minnesota to his native Ethiopia in 2019 to help rebuild the country.
But Mohammed, the leader of an opposition party, was arrested by the Ethiopian government as part of a crackdown on dissent following the assassination of popular Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020.
“My husband is suffering in prison,” Gemeda said. “It’s a nightmare, and the toughest part is explaining to my son where his dad is.”
Mohammed’s arrest is among the alleged human rights violations by the Ethiopian government that have reverberated beyond Minnesota, triggering nationwide protests and calls for the U.S. State Department to pressure Ethiopia’s government for his release.
Those calls intensified recently after news that Mohammed’s health had deteriorated after he and other jailed opposition leaders went on a 40-day hunger strike demanding that the government free all Oromo political prisoners and end the violence against their families.
In February, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning the actions of the Ethiopian government and declaring their support for Oromo and Tigray activists.
“The individuals who have been targeted or killed in Ethiopia, most of them are individuals from Minnesota who have gone back to make a positive change,” said Council Member Jamal Osman, who introduced the resolution. “We’re going to do everything we can to call out the violence against the Oromo community.”
Mohammed, 34, faces charges that include conspiring to overthrow the government by force and inciting violence against ethnic Amharas and Orthodox Christian clergies. He pleaded not guilty to those charges in his March court appearance, where he accused the Ethiopian government and its supporters of running “a well-coordinated and financed campaign” that he said painted him as a “violent Muslim fanatic to advance their goals of delegitimizing my cause and disparage the struggle of the Oromo people.”
Family of activists
The Ethiopian consulate in St. Paul declined to comment, saying Mohammed’s case is being handled in court.
Gemeda, an activist who has been involved in Oromo politics long before her husband, said the court won’t be able to solve her husband’s case because the charges are fabricated and politically motivated.
“My husband is not a criminal,” she said. “All the charges leveled against him by the Ethiopian government contradict with the person he is and everything he stands for.”
Mohammed, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, was born in Ethiopia. In the early 2000s, Mohammed received a scholarship to study in Singapore, an experience that gave him a deep understanding of his Oromo identity and piqued his interest in politics. In 2006, he went to Stanford University to get a bachelor’s degree in political science and went on to earn a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University.
While at Stanford, he married Twin Cities resident Gemeda, a Lutheran Christian. The couple have a 4-year-old son named Oromo.
TV station reached expats
Mohammed was already doing much of the political work from afar. In Minnesota, he helped found a satellite television station called Oromia Media Network (OMN), a daily broadcast that drew international attention to the unrest in Ethiopia and helped spur some major political changes in that country.
Those who had long known Mohammed say he was a peaceful vocal critic of the government, not a rabble-rouser. He and Gemeda were the brains behind the International Oromo Youth Association known as Qeerroo, a global nonviolent movement credited for ousting Ethiopia’s previous regime, which was in power for nearly 30 years.
Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but they are considered a minority because they don’t hold political power. Decades of ethnic conflict and a long history of oppression by the Ethiopian government has led to a growing number of Oromos fleeing their homeland.
“Our people have been suffering for so long,” Gemeda said. “Jawar wanted to bring change through a peaceful movement.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised drastic changes and an end to years of ongoing conflict when he came to power in 2018. He was the country’s first leader to visit Minnesota, which is home to the largest Oromo community outside of Ethiopia. He carried messages of hope and made promises that included prioritizing peace, freedom of the press, sharing reform developments with the country’s diaspora, restoring internet access and releasing political prisoners.
It was then that Gemeda said her husband traveled from Minnesota to his birth country at the Ethiopia government’s invitation.
His supporters swarmed the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city to welcome their hero, who at the time urged them to give the prime minister a second chance to restore peace in a country marred by ethnic tensions and violence.
But soon after, Mohammed formed an opposition party against his former ally after he disagreed with his handling of political reforms. Mohammed renounced his American citizenship and announced his bid for office in late 2019.
Because Ethiopia’s constitution does not allow dual citizenship, he applied to regain his Ethiopian nationality, which he has since been denied because of his case. On June 30, 2020, a day after the high-profile musician Hundessa was killed, Mohammed and other leaders of his opposition party were thrown in jail.
Desperate, Gemeda reached out to members of Congress and the State Department for help. But she said there isn’t much they can do because of her husband’s citizenship status.
He’s ‘now stateless’
“My husband is now stateless,” Gemeda said, fighting back tears. “I feel defeated.”
Many Ethiopians back home and abroad who have been watching Mohammed’s case feared his death in prison would send the country into civil war. But in early March, after constant pleas from elders and other notable figures, Mohammed ended his hunger strike, bringing a sense of relief.
Obsa Hassan, board chairman of the Oromo Community of Minnesota, which hosted Ahmed when he visited Minnesota in 2018, said the prime minister backpedaled on all his promises when he returned to Ethiopia. Hassan said many fear what will happen in Ethiopia after the general election in June.
“There was hope in the air that once and for all Ethiopia was going to embark on the process of democratization,” Hassan said. “But the prime minister completely mishandled it and not only that, now we have catastrophe of the Tigray war and the Oromia war that has been ongoing for over two years.”
To raise awareness about Mohammed’s case and other humanitarian crises happening in their native country, Minnesota’s Oromo community launched social media campaigns, held news conferences, wrote letters to their local representatives and staged a three-day hunger strike last summer in front of the Capitol in St. Paul.
Iftuu Shato, one of the organizers of the protests, said the situation in Ethiopia is dire and many Oromo expats are not able to communicate with their families back home because the government is still restricting the internet and tapping their phone lines.
“Every day we wake up we are asking ourselves how many people are going to die today and how many of our family members are we going to bury,” Shato said. “We’re still going to continue fighting for the people back home that can’t do what we can.”
Gemeda, who has been an outspoken political activist for peace, now feels powerless to reunite her family.
“I’m so far away there’s nothing I can really do,” Gemeda said. “Not knowing what could come next is so stressful.”
Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203