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East Africa Politics News

Ethiopia frees 63 critics, opposition prisoners jailed over alleged coup2 minutes read

“The Ethiopian government hopes to widen the political and democratic space in the country with the freeing” of these individuals,” a government spokesman said.

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in an undated photo./AFP

Ethiopia is set to release 63 high-profile critics and prisoners from jail, including opposition activists held over an alleged coup and other high-ranking dissidents that had previously been incarcerated.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that investigations had been dropped against 63 individuals and they would be released from custody later this week “for the national good”.

“The Ethiopian government hopes to widen the political and democratic space in the country with the freeing” of these individuals, spokesman, Zinabu Tunu was quoted in an AFP report.

Among those to be released are cadres of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), an ethno-nationalist opposition group blamed for attacks last year that the government described as a regional coup attempt.

Hundreds were arrested in the aftermath of the June violence in Ethiopia’s north that left five high-ranking officials dead and heaped pressure on a government struggling to cope with ethnic tensions.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had been praised for loosening control in long-authoritarian Ethiopia, and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was accused at the time of using the violence as a pretext to jail critics.

NAMA chairperson Belete Molla said their officials should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and welcomed the announcement of their release.

“We consider their imprisonment a politically-motivated act intended to weaken Amhara nationalism,” he told AFP.

Among others scheduled for release are activists from the Sidama ethnic group, which voted in November to form their own regional state after a long campaign for more autonomy.

Biniam Tewolde, a former deputy director of Ethiopia’s cyber intelligence agency INSA, who was jailed in 2018 for corruption, is also among those to be pardoned, his lawyer Haileselassie Gebremedhin told AFP.

Critics have accused Abiy of authoritarian tendencies, including locking up opponents, even as he embarked on sweeping reforms to foster a more open political and media environment.

Ethiopia is scheduled to hold elections in August and Abiy hopes to secure a mandate to pursue an ambitious agenda of political and economic reform.

But opposition parties and civil society organisations have questioned whether the elections will be peaceful and credible. 

Ethnic violence has persisted since Abiy was appointed in 2018 following several years of anti-government protests. 

Nearly 30 people were injured Sunday in an explosion at a pro-Abiy rally in Ambo, roughly 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of the capital, Addis Ababa.

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East Africa Politics News

Crackdown on rebels trigger outcry against Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Community leaders contend ordinary civilians are bearing the brunt of the operations, which include mass detentions, an internet blackout and restrictions on political activity.

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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed to avoid questions at Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed./AFP photo

Desta Garuma, a 27-year-old rickshaw driver, never showed much interest in politics, so his family has no idea how soldiers concluded he was involved in a rebel movement active in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

But one day in January, five truckloads of soldiers followed him home, shouting that they had identified a shifta, or bandit — a euphemism for rebel, an AFP report said.

As his mother and younger sister cowered inside, the soldiers fatally shot Desta three times in the back, according to witnesses.

“When I heard the shots I said, ‘Oh my God, they killed my son,'” Desta’s mother, Likitu Merdasa, told AFP.

“My son was not a troublemaker. We hoped he would be able to improve his life as well as mine. But now he has been taken from me before his time.”

The killing is one of an array of abuses that residents, opposition politicians and rights groups accuse soldiers of committing in and around Nekemte, a market town in Oromia, as part of a crackdown on rebels that has intensified this year.

Community leaders contend ordinary civilians are bearing the brunt of the operations, which include mass detentions, an internet blackout and restrictions on political activity.

The Ethiopian military rejects claims that its activities endanger civilians.

Yet Nekemte residents say the soldiers’ presence recalls life under past authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia, tarnishing the image of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace laureate trying to steer the country toward landmark elections in August.

This is especially disheartening for the Oromo ethnic group, who had hoped they would benefit from the appointment of Abiy, himself an Oromo, as prime minister in 2018.

“When the reform came, we all hoped this kind of thing would not happen to Oromo people,” Likitu said.

“But now they’re coming to the doors of our houses and killing our children in front of us.”

– Escalating operations-The military is ostensibly targeting the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), blamed for a spate of assassinations, bombings, bank robberies and kidnappings in Oromia.

The OLA, believed to number in the low thousands, broke off from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed to return to Ethiopia after Abiy took office.

The government has offered little specific information about military operations in Nekemte and the broader region that surrounds it, known as Wollega.

But there are signs that counterinsurgency efforts have escalated since January, said William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict-prevention organisation.

“It appears the government decided to make a renewed effort to entirely remove the threat of armed groups from the area,” Davison said.

Brigadier General Tilahun Ashenafi, foreign relations director of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, defended the military’s actions, saying he had “no idea” about civilian casualties.

Soldiers are acting in a “very good way in that region in order to clear anti-peace elements”, he told AFP.

– Beatings, detentions-But many residents of Nekemte see the military, not the rebels, as the main source of instability.

Asfaw Kebede, a 60-year-old community leader, told AFP he grew alarmed last year at the jailing without charge of young men in Kumsa Moroda Palace, a one-time tourist attraction that residents said had been turned into a makeshift detention facility.

When Asfaw started bringing the men food, soldiers locked him up too, holding him in a dark cell for six weeks with roughly 100 other detainees.

All the men were deprived of proper food and medical care, Asfaw said.

The palace teemed with snakes and mice, and when they entered the cells inmates who scrambled to get away were beaten with batons, he said.

Opposition political parties have also been affected by the military presence.

Representatives of both the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress said their offices had been closed multiple times and their members detained.

Such tactics are fuelling sympathy for the OLA, said Tamirat Biranu, head of an evangelical church in Nekemte.

“Young people are very sad about this and also they are angry at the government,” he said. “Because of this, some of the youth are joining the rebels.”

-‘A heavy toll’-As bad as things might be in Nekemte, they are likely worse in rural areas farther west, where phone service has been cut for months, said Asebe Regassa, a lecturer at Wollega University. 

“Killings are occurring on a daily basis in rural areas,” Asebe said, adding that farmers are afraid of harvesting their crops, fearing soldiers will accuse them of growing food for the OLA.

The military operations are “clearly taking a heavy toll,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

“Ahead of the 2020 national elections the government should be working to build trust with communities,” she said.

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East Africa Politics News

Tanzanian journalist pleads guilty to tax evasion, freed after plea bargain

After Erick Kabendera acknowledged both crimes in court and agreed to fines of nearly 275 million shillings ($119,305.86), magistrate Janeth Mtega ruled he be freed.

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Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera in court./Google

A prominent Tanzanian journalist arrested in July was released on Monday after pleading guilty of tax evasion and money laundering in a case critics had said was politically motivated.

After Erick Kabendera acknowledged both crimes in court and agreed to fines of nearly 275 million shillings ($119,305.86), magistrate Janeth Mtega ruled he be freed, a Reuters report said.

“Finally I’ve got my freedom, it’s quite unexpected that I would be out this soon. I’m really grateful to everybody who played their role,” the 39-year-old investigative reporter said outside court.

In the charge sheet, prosecutors said Kabendera had with his wife – who was not detained or charged – registered two companies which were used as “vehicles of money laundering” without proper returns being filed.

Though his lawyers had originally rejected the charges, in October they said he was pursuing a plea bargain.

The reporter has written for international publications including Britain’s Guardian and Times and was known for pursuing politically-sensitive investigations.

One article last year published by the East African newspaper reported a rift in President John Magufuli’s government with the headline “No end in sight as Tanzania’s ruling party CCM goes for ‘dissenters’.”

After he was arrested at his home last year, the United States and Britain called the affair “irregular” and in violation of Tanzania’s criminal procedures law.

Rights groups saw the case as part of a pattern of tighter control on the media since the 2015 election of Magufuli.

“The outrageous fabricated charges against him show the intolerance of the Tanzanian authorities to any criticism,” Amnesty International said in a statement last year.

Magufuli’s administration has shut down newspapers, fined some critical outlets, arrested opposition leaders and restricted political rallies.

The government denies it is muzzling the media.

Several hours after the ruling, the journalist’s lawyer Jebra Kambole said he had paid the 100 million shilling fine for one of the charges and would pay the other within six months.

A third charge, of assisting a criminal racket, was dropped.

Held at the Segerea maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital Dar es Salaam, the journalist had appeared in court more than ten times, sometimes appearing frail.

In September, Magufuli said that people held on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes should be freed if they confess and return the cash.

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East Africa Politics News

President Kiir, Machar agree to form South Sudan unity government on Saturday

“We had a meeting with the president on the outstanding issues. We have agreed to form the government on 22 Feb,” Machar, First Vice President-nominee said.

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President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar pledge to power-sharing deal
South Sudan President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar in a previous reconciliation meeting in Kampala, Uganda brokered by President Yoweri Museveni. /AFP

Former rebel and opposition leader, Riek Machar said he has agreed to form a unity government with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to meet Saturday’s deadline, following talks at state house on Thursday.

Before the announcement, it had been unclear if the Feb. 22 deadline would be met as key benchmarks of the 2018 peace agreement had not been fulfilled. The deadline had elapsed several times without an agreement between the two sides.

“We had a meeting with the president on the outstanding issues. We have agreed to form the government on 22 Feb,” Machar said.

Kiir confirmed the agreement, a Reuters report said.

“We have agreed to form the government,” he said after the meeting, adding that he will appoint Machar as first vice president on Friday.

“We are going to discuss the security arrangement for the protection of all opposition forces and members,” Kiir added.

All the members of the opposition will be given protection, he added. “And if there are things we have not agreed upon, we had agreed to resolve them. We shall finalise them incoming days,” Kiir said.

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