Ethiopian Evangelicals Still Jailed Without Charges

Friday, February 21, 2003

Maychew Court Illegally Prolongs Murder Investigation
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, February 21 (Compass) -- Evangelical Christians in northern Ethiopia confirmed yesterday that instead of being released as expected, two local church elders jailed without charges for 10 months were remanded back to prison two days ago by a local court judge.

Under Ethiopian law, Pentecostal church leaders Kiros Meles and Abebayeh Desalegn could only have remained under arrest if the prosecutor produced sufficient evidence before the court to press formal murder charges against them. Otherwise, since the legal period of detention without charges had long expired, the judge was required to release them.

But instead, the hearing was postponed for two more weeks, repeating the cycle of delays surrounding the long-term detention of the two Protestant leaders.

Meles, 46, and Desalegn, 35, were arrested after a two-day rampage last April against Maychew’s five evangelical churches by a mob of Orthodox church extremists.

Local police named the two men as suspects in the death of a young Orthodox man shot dead during the last day of the riots, although the fatal bullet came from the local police chief’s gun. An off-duty policeman accused of pulling the trigger was also jailed.

According to Maychew’s evangelical community, local police have deliberately used the two Protestants as scapegoats in an attempt to exonerate the detained policeman, believed by local townspeople to have committed the crime. Already 13 court hearings set on the case have been postponed, four of them since early January.

At a February 12 hearing last week, the local prosecutor asked the judge for another seven days to “cross-examine police witnesses” and gather his own evidence, claiming that a one-day public holiday had prevented him from completing his statement.

Local Protestants said the prosecutor had indicated the two men could be released on the basis of “new evidence” he was obtaining. However, the prosecutor failed to appear at the February 19 hearing, when the judge postponed the case until March 5.

“What proof do we have that he is not just buying time, under instructions from the police or a higher court?” asked one close observer of the case. Back in November, one magistrate admitted she was being “forced” by the High Court to grant the police more time to continue their investigation.

Last week, Pentecostal church sources confirmed that the parents of the Orthodox youth killed in April had gone to the police, stating that they knew the two evangelical leaders were innocent and that it was the arrested policeman who was responsible for their son’s death. But so far, this has had no known effect on the judicial stalemate.

Local evangelical believers are reportedly reluctant to hire a defense lawyer to represent the men because they are under the impression that legal counsel is only allowed after the men are officially charged. “They are also fearful that if a lawyer gets involved, this would upset the police and judiciary officials,” one source said.

“It is evident that Kiros’ wife Abeba is feeling the strain now,” a Christian who visited her earlier this month told Compass. For one thing, he reported, Maychew prison officials stopped allowing the men’s wives to bring them food for several weeks.

They have also confiscated the men’s Bibles, “allegedly because they have been continuing to evangelize their fellow prisoners,” the visitor said. To curry favor with their jailers, some prisoners have reportedly accused the two evangelicals of bribing various prisoners to join the Pentecostal faith.

In a similar incident on December 29 reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), at least two people were shot and killed when Orthodox Church youth in the northeastern town of Mekele attacked a public gathering organized by evangelical Protestants. According to a January 3 editorial in the “Addis Tribune,” independent reports put the death toll at five.

A week later, three evangelical pastors in Mekele were arrested and jailed. Local police demanded that the court refuse them bail at three court appearances in January, after which they were suddenly released without charges filed. The pastors have been identified as Rev. Kiros Lakew of the Mekane Yesus Church, Seged Gebru of the Full Gospel Church and Asfaw Hailu of the Hiwot Birham Church.

According to the London-based human rights group Amnesty International, there has been little international awareness of Ethiopia’s failure to address the flagrant misuse of judicial and police authority.

“The use of detention without charge is still endemic in Ethiopia,” Amnesty reported in January. “People are regularly detained for up to five or six years without being either charged or taken to court.”