Ethiopia drops charges against top dissident Bekele Gerba

Addis Ababa – Ethiopia on Monday dropped charges against top dissident Bekele Gerba, state media reported, ending the trial of a critic whose detention fuelled deadly protests and brought the country international condemnation.The move is the latest instance of Ethiopia’s government pardoning or dropping charges against high-profile prisoners since Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn last month announced an unspecified number of detainees would be released.

“The federal attorney general today dropped charges against seven suspects, including Bekele Gerba,” state-affiliated Fana Broadcast Corporate reported.

“The move is part of the decisions made by [the] Executive Committee of EPRDF to drop charges against and pardon politicians and individuals, in order to build national consensus and widen the political space,” the broadcaster said, referring to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

It is not clear when Bekele will be released, and if he must still serve two six-month sentences he was handed for contempt of court during his trial.

A foreign-language professor and deputy leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Bekele was arrested in December 2015 just as his ethnic group the Oromos began protesting a government plan they feared would cause them to lose their land.

After hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests, the government imposed a 10-month nationwide state of emergency in October 2016 to quell the unrest.

But protests still occur occasionally, and Bekele’s trial on charges of inciting violence was a bone of contention among Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnicity.

“It seems the government has sensed the grievance of the people growing for not releasing Bekele,” his attorney Ameha Mekonnen told AFP.

Since Hailemariam’s announcement, Ethiopia dropped charges against OFC chairperson Merera Gudina, and announced it would also release blogger Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage, though the latter two have yet to walk free.

In January, Bekele and three other OFC members on trial alongside him were cited for contempt for singing a protest song in court, and given a six-month jail sentence.

The group were given another six-month sentence for contempt last week when they refused a judge’s order to stand during a hearing, Ameha said.

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