Analysis: How killing of Ethiopian professor unfolded, led to $2bn lawsuit against Meta

Professor Meareg Amare Abraha Photo: Abrham Meareg

By Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane

Addis Abeba – Meareg Amare Abreha, 60, a father of four children, and a full-time Professor of Analytical Chemistry at Bahir Dar University, was shot dead in front of his residence around midday on 02 November 2021 in Bahir Dar, the capital of Ethiopia’s Amhara regional state; he was left on the scene for hours before the perpetrators allowed the city municipal service to pick his body.

The professor’s murder came after two Facebook posts of defamation and death threats from a page identified as “BDU STAFF” that had 50k followers at the time, his son, Abrham Meareg told Addis Standard magazine for a story of its November print publication.

Abrham is one of the plaintiffs in a new $2bn (£1.6bn) lawsuit filed against Facebook’s parent company, Meta, which was fielded last week at a High Court in Nairobi, Kenya. The case is supported by non-profit campaign group, Foxglove, which says there is a reasonable certainty that lack of prompt measure from Facebook has changed the fate of the life of professor Meareg.

“We firmly believe that had the posts been taken down immediately, or caught by a filter and taken down, the Professor would still be alive,” Rosa Curling, Director at the Foxglove, told Addis Standard.

According to the director, the posts that incited the murder of Prof. Meareg Amare Abrha stayed up for weeks after his son reported them – one of them stayed up for over a year and was still up as late as last week.

The lawsuit establishes the connection of algorithmic functions that favors fanning viral contents giving nonequivalent emphasis of care to avert their repercussions.

“Sadly, ‘engaging’ posts are often violent or shocking, because people react to them, share them, comment on them. All those reactions mean the Facebook algorithm promotes the post more, and can make hate posts and violence go viral, and spread even further. This is why we say that Facebook is deadly by design,” Rosa said.

Abrham, alongside other petitioners in the lawsuit, demands the court to order Facebook to halt promoting viral hate; start demoting violent incitement similar to the immediate steps it took after the US Capitol riots of 06 January 2021; as well as employ enough content moderators to address content moderation in a range of languages; apologize for the professor’s death, and create a restitution fund to be assessed by the court for victims of hate and violence incited on Facebook; petitioners demand a total of $2.4 billion for harm from posts, and sponsored posts.

But who was professor Meareg and how did his killing unfold?

By Abrham Meareg, @AmareMeareg, for Addis Standard Magazine

Abrham Meareg, Prof. Meareg’s son and plaintiff on the lawsuit (Picture: Foxglove –Screen grab)

Professor Meareg Amare Abreha was born on March 21, 1961, as the second child of his family in Adi- Tsehafi, Leto village, 10km outside the city of Axum, Tigray region. He attended his primary and secondary schools in Axum before earning his Diploma in Chemistry from the then Haramaya College of Agriculture in 1982 and served as a teacher at the secondary school in Dabat town. In 1983, he was arrested by the Derg military government and remained in Gonder Baeta Prison until January 1985.

After his release from prison he continued his teaching career in different high schools in the Amhara Region. He perused further on his academics to earn his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in from Addis Abeba University in 1990. Subsequently, for next three years he served as Vice President for the Amhara Regional State Teachers’ Association and served as a high-level expert in the educational bureau of the region.

Yet, Prof. Maereg didn’t rest on his academics and earned master’s degree in 2004 in Analytical Chemistry and later in 2013 doctoral degree in Physical Chemistry. In between, he started his new teaching and research role at Bahir Dar University in August, 2005.

Prof. Meareg didn’t want to depart early form his passion for academics, and therefore he renewed his stay at Bahir Dar University for additional five years on March 10, 2021. However he requested retirement on October 29, 2021, due to unsought external pressures including threatening emails and messages he had been receiving.

We have learned that our beloved father made significant contributions to the university through research and the teaching of undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students until he was brutally murdered. He was the author of the 7th to 10th grade textbooks and editor of the 11th and 12th-grade chemistry textbooks in the late 1990s and 2000s.

He publicized twenty-eight chemistry-related research and thoughtful laboratory findings and reports. And as a major and co-researcher, he published over 46 scientific articles and executed six projects in addition to other six scientific articles that have been published after he was assassinated.

As a result of his successive contributions, in 2017 he was promoted to an Associate Professor and then promoted to full Professorship in February 1, 2021 at Bahir Dar University being one of the three full Professors of Analytical Chemistry in Ethiopia and the one and only at Bahir Dar University.

Despite retiring on 29 March 2021, he continued to work for another one year based on an agreement with the University. On Friday, August 20, 2021, six armed police officers with the regional pelt car went to both the university and our house looking for him but he had gone to Addis Abeba the same day for personal work and a family visit. On the 9th and 10th of October, a Facebook address “BDU STAFF” with more than 50k followers posted two contents of defamation and death threats against our father regarding him as a member of the TPLF.

Regardless of the nationwide political turmoil and death threats targeting him, he returned to Bahir Dar on Sunday, October 10, 2021, ignoring advice from the family by referring to his innocence. On the same day October 10, 2021, he went in person to Bahir Dar Special Zone Police and Security Office and the following day Monday, October 11, 2021, to Amhara Regional State Police Commission to request if they were looking for him or if he was wanted by the law. In response, they responded that they were not looking for him at all.

“One of the murderers, covered with a mask, managed to approach him and fired two shots, the first hitting our beloved father’s right leg and followed by the second fatal shot on his right chest…”

On 3 November 2021, he was gunned down in front of his house at midday. On the same day, our father was at the university to process some documents for his retirement, and he met with the academic Vice President of Bahir Dar University. The family has learned that the assassination was orchestrated by both state and non-state actors.

Map demonstrates how the coordinated assassination took place in his residence area. The Green mark: Our father’s last trip from the University to his house. The red mark: Shows how some armed groups were following him from the University, and others were waiting him from different angels in advance. Dark purple: shows how they took his private car. Map: Abrham Maereg

Some of the members were waiting around his house for hours and the other three were following him from the city center to his home by motorcycle. Our Father, after parking the car outside the compound, he was opening the left side of the main gate when three gunmen, wearing the Amhara Special Force uniform, started to fire two bullets into the sky and five at the house fence, gate, and rooms.

One of the murderers, covered with a mask, managed to approach him and fired two shots, the first hitting our beloved father’s right leg and followed by the second fatal shot on his right chest ending his life at the scene. Few people who took the risk to take him to the hospital were unfortunately prevented by the militant group prohibiting emergency aid, or even to cover his body.

The three assassins swiftly took his private Yaris car, license plated 80771 AA 2; it was a gift from his children given to him in 2013. Nobody was allowed to pick him up, and his body was on the ground for seven hours until the municipal men buried him in an unmarked grave.

What makes our grief even more bitter is that we were not allowed to bury him, and we were kept in the dark about his funeral process and location of his burial, which was later disclosed by a report from the Bahir Dar office of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

In the three pages report, written on 23 February 2022, the commission tried to explain what happened to our father that day. Per the report, on 03 November 2021, in the morning at about 10:00 AM, Professor Meareg was back home from the university. “Unidentified” perpetrators were following him by car before they killed him, and police were unable to do anything in fear of further violence from militants.

The report says, around 5:00 pm, several hours after the assassination, his body was taken to the Felege Hiwot Referral Hospital, 200m away from our residence. Later, on an unidentified day, the city municipal took his body to Medehanialem Church and buried him without coffin. AS

Editor’s Note: This post,including the title, was edited to correct the amount of lawsuit against Meta, which was erroneously stated as $1.6bn in the original post. The corrected amount is $2bn (£1.6bn).

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