BY MAHLET FASIL @MAHLETFASIL
Addis Abeba, December 26/2020 – Five defendants in the file under Eskinder Nega, Founder of the opposition party Balederas for Genuine Democracy, have entered a plea of not guilty after prosecutors submitted revised charges at the Federal High Court, Lideta Branch, First Constitutional and Anti-Terrorism Bench.
The federal judges however proceeded with ruling to commence witness hearing in four months from now on April 7, 8, 21, 22, 26, 27, 29, as well as on May 4 and 6 2021.
The trial was held after the judges examined the prosecutor’s revised following the ruling during the last hearing ordering the prosecutors to clarify two points. One of two points the judges ordered prosecutors to clarify was to identify the social media posts that the defendants were accused of posting to inciting violence while the second one was to indicate the venue where the 4th defendant was accused of giving instructions to the youth as was indicated in the initial charge. In light of this, the prosecutors revised the charges, which were read out at the court blaming the defendants’ use of various social media cites; it also accused the 4th defendant Askale Demissie of giving instructions to the youth around Tor Hayiloch area in the capital.
The judges have subsequently ruled the defendants to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty based on the revised charge. The first defendant Eskinder Nega said that he did not commit the act and entered plea of not guilty adding that the accusation was politically motivated. Similarly the 2nd defendant, Sintayehu Chekol, also a senior member of Balderas, entered plea of not guilty and added that they were arrested “because we plan to participate in the election.”
After pleading not guilty, the 3rd defendant, Keleb Seyoum, told the judges that she was already sentenced in the past for four years in prison simply because of her political views and without any evidence, and that her current case is no different than the past. “The prosecutor is the government’s puppet, that’s why I am charged,” Keleb said, a remark immediately rebuffed by the prosecutor as “inappropriate remark” which should earn her charges of “contempt of court”; the judges overruled the request for contempt of court but cautioned Keleb to not repeat such emotional remarks.
Askale Demise, the 4th defendant in the file, pleaded not guilty and said she was “a government employee, and my supervisor said that I cannot oppose the government. We are just arrested by the government,” she added. The 5th defendant Getnet Bekele also pleaded not guilty of all the charges.
Soon after the judges adjourned witness hearing, the court was filled with murmurs of displeasure from the families and supporters of defendants who opposed to the ruling.
Eskinder told the judges that the appointments given were set for long time and should be brought closer because among the defendants were candidates of his party ready to participate in the upcoming election. The judges overruled the request on the bases of time constraint to accommodate their cases in a short period of time and adjourned the first witness hearing until April 07/2021.
It is to be remembered that on December 08, the judges have ruled against federal prosecutors’ request for behind a curtain witness testimony. Prosecutors requested witnesses to testify behind a curtain fearing “for their safety” and the testimonies to be conducted under witness protection provisions; but the defense team have objected the notion arguing that defendants have no way of knowing if the witnesses were reading from a script. After weighing on the arguments presented by both sides, the judges have dismissed the prosecutors’ request on the grounds that it will violet the rights of the defendants.