Analysis: Oromia Supreme Court accepts charges against ONN journalists, other defendants, contradicts own ruling on charges amendment

Some of the accused. Picture: Compiled from Social media

By Natnael Fite @NatieFit

Addis Abeba: Judges at the Oromia Supreme Court who are presiding over the case involving 17 defendants, including two journalists from Oromia News Network (ONN), on 21 July decided to accept the charges by the prosecutor and proceed with the hearing. However, the defense team said that the decision by the judges to proceed with the hearing contradicted the court’s own earlier ruling asking the prosecutor to amend various parts of the initial charges that invoked, among other charges, Article 258/A of the Criminal Code, which discusses provisions of the death penalty.

The judges ruled to proceed with the hearing yesterday against the defense’s argument that the substance of the amended charges by the prosecutor, especially on Article 258/A, remained similar with the previous one which were up for amendment as per the court’s own ruling.

The 17 defendants under the file name of Qasim Abdullahi includes ONN journalists Bikila Amenu and Dessu Dulla, who were detained in November and May 2021, respectively. They are facing charges on criminal and terrorism offenses under Article 27, Article 32, Article 238/1/B, as well as Article 258/A of the Criminal Code. The charges brought by the prosecutors in April this year include intent to commit crimes, committing crimes, and outrage against the constitution or the constitutional order. Under these criminal provisions, the prosecutor accused the defendants of attempting to dismantle the legally established government of Oromia regional state, and install in its place the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government (ORNTG), in violation of article 238/1/B of the criminal code.

The charges under Article 258/A of the Criminal Code discuss the legal punishment provisions under “Aggravation to the Crime.” The provision deals with punishment “for which the law provides the alternative of rigorous imprisonment for life or death, the Court shall pass sentence of death,” making the possibilities that if convicted the accused will face “rigorous imprisonment for life or death.”

The charges also included charges of terrorism related offenses against Khalifa Abdufeta, the 7th defendant in the same file name.

Subsequently, the defense team has fielded its objections against the charges on the grounds of “principles of legality”, under Article 2 of the criminal code; as well as under article 19 and article 29 of the federal constitution on the basis of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, among others.

The defense team argued that the activities of establishing the said Oromia Regional National Transitional Government were organized peacefully under the auspices of a legally registered opposition party, specifically the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The party has publicly declared the need for establishing a transitional government in Oromia regional state, the defense team argued, including by issuing official press releases where there was no violence committed by any of their clients. The defense team also argued that official letters describing OLF’s political alternatives were submitted to various offices within the Oromia state government and civil servants, rendering the prosecutor’s argument on allegations of violence irrelevant.

Additionally, the defense team argued that the terrorism charges against the 7th defendant Khalifa Abdufeta, and the alleged accusation against him of “supporting OLF/Shene professionally and with information” were mere allegations which were not backed by actual evidences. Similarly, invoking Article 258, which is a provision about punishment, merits no legal proceeding and was only done to create psychological duress on the defendants.

At a hearing on 07 July, the Oromia Supreme Court has accepted the defense’s argument against the prosecutor’s invocation of article 258 and ordered prosecutors to amend the charges including removing the article from the remaining charges on the basis that punishment provisions cannot be discussed during ongoing trials. The Court also accepted the defense’s argument on the need to amend the charges under article 238/1/B of the criminal code, lack of evidence against the 7th defendant who is charged under terrorism offenses, as well as the request for the prosecutors to separate the charges that summarily accused all the 17 defendants without indicating the allegations against each defendant.

However, the Prosecutor returned to the next hearing on 18 July with no amendment to the charges under Article 258, as well as the remaining order from the Court, including on the order for evidence against the 7th defendant, as per the ruling from the court, prompting the defense team to file for dismissal of the charges against their clients on the basis that prosecutors were unable to comply with the Court’s orders and other irregularities. The Court however ordered the prosecutor to amend the charges for the second time, which led to the defendants to file an appeal for the removal of the judges from the bench on the basis of bias and unfairness.

The defense team lost the appeal for the removal of the judges, as well as the appeal for the dismissal of the charges, leading to the hearing on Thursday 21 July.

Tolemariam Magarsa, legal counsel to the defendants, told Addis Standard that the appeal filed by the defendants for the dismissal of the charges after the prosecutor failed to amend the charges under Article 258 was ruled void. “The court stated that the major points in the charge were not listed under Article 258, but under article 238 of the criminal code; for this reason, the defendants’ appeal was dropped and the amended charges by the prosecutor were accepted,” he said.

But according to Milkias Bulcha, another member of the defense team, the court’s decision on 21 July to proceed with the hearing contravened its own decision earlier ordering the prosecutors to amend the charges. “The prosecutor did not comply with the court’s ruling for amendment and the court’s decision to proceed with the hearing contravened its own earlier decision that sought for amendment in the charges,” Milkias told Addis Standard.

Subsequently, according to Tolemariam, the defense began giving counterarguments against prosecutor’s charges and argued that establishing the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government (ORNTG) constitutes no offense, and is guaranteed by the constitution under the right to freedom of expression. The defense also said that official letters on the ORNTG political programs were sent to the Oromia Police Commission, Oromia President’s office Oromia Justice Bureau, the regional parliament, and other regional state institutions and civil service offices peacefully and with “no crimes committed.”

The hearing yesterday was also when the defense team’s request for bail has been overturned by the court. “The defendants have known addresses, they have responsibilities delegated to them by their party, they can’t evade the law and taking into consideration the stress their families are under as well as the impacts on the party’s work,” Tolemariam said explaining why the defense team fielded for bail. However, the prosecutor objected the request on the grounds that that the defendants have no addresses and pose a flight risk.

Although the Court has rejected the request for bail, it adjourned another hearing on 02 August to review and decide on the matter.

Most of the 17 defendants were arrested in November last year and are detained at Dalati police station in Sabata town, in Oromia Regional State Special Zone Surrounding Finfinne. Except for the two journalists, the remaining 15 are members of the opposition party OLF who were serving the party in various capacities, AS

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