Ethiopian Magistrate Releases Two Jailed Protestants

Friday, March 7, 2003

Church Elders’ Detention a ‘Shame,’ Judge Declares
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, March 7 (Compass) -- Evangelical church leaders Kiros Meles and Abebayeh Desalegn walked free today after being jailed without charges for 10 months in the northern Ethiopian town of Maychew.

According to the magistrate who ordered their release two days ago, no evidence existed against the two Pentecostal elders, under investigation for alleged murder.

“It is a shame for them to be in prison,” the judge declared at the March 5 hearing as she ordered the men transferred the same day from prison to the local police station, where they were discharged today.

“They have been released this morning and are at their homes, celebrating with all the believers,” a source who had spoken with their wives told Compass.

Members of Maychew’s Protestant community had feared that local police might again ignore the judge’s order and refuse to release the men once they were transferred back into police custody, as was done in November.

Ethiopia’s police force is notorious for misuse of authority and cases of detention without charges are endemic across the country, human rights activists report.

Meles, 46, and Desalegn, 35, were arrested after a two-day riot last April led by a mob of Orthodox church extremists, leaving Maychew’s five evangelical churches heavily damaged. When a young Orthodox man was shot dead during the last day of the rampage, local police named the two evangelical leaders as suspects in his death. The fatal shot came from the local police chief’s gun, however, and an off-duty policeman accused of firing it was also jailed.

After 14 hearings on their case, local police failed to produce any evidence against the two Maychew evangelicals.

“At this moment,” a local source admitted, “we do not have much hope that the policeman guilty of firing the fatal shots will be charged at all.”

Extremists in the majority Orthodox Christian community in Ethiopia have become increasingly hostile toward the newer Protestant movements, which have mushroomed in the past decade. Members of evangelical congregations are often taunted as “Pentes” (Pentecostals), and in several regions their churches have been stoned and copies of their Bibles and hymnbooks set on fire.