By Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane
Addis Abeba – Two years have gone already since Dori Asgedom, Chairman of the Assimba Democratic Party (ADP), Tigray based opposition party, is locked behind bars in Addis Abeba. Before his arrest on 13 January 2021, Dori was becoming a recognizably emerging political figure who stoop up for the rights of of the Irob minority, the party’s stronghold in Tigray regional state.
His arrest came a few days after his party released a statement dated on 24 December 24 exposing the presence of the Eritrean troops and the atrocities they were committing in Tigray, within the sovereign territory of Ethiopia, something that was only rumored until then after the war in Tigray broke out in early November 2020.
Dori’s party has repeatedly issued statements pleading the release of its leader who has been in Kality prison in the capital Addis Abeba for more than two years now. The party maintains their leader has been arrested after it issued the first statement that no other parties or civil societies dared to issue at that time, exposing the invasion of Tigray by the Eritrean army.
“By the time the statement was released, I was in Afar, and days later, when I came to Addis Abeba, I was arrested…”Dori Asgedom
During a recent visit by Addis Standard in Kality prison, where Dori is locked even after a federal court granted him bail, he came to the visitation area with a bright smile and extended a warm greeting. His smile gives away his undying hope on the continued need for political, social and economic struggle his party is determined to purse despite the mounting challenges unfolding in the Tigray region and the dreadful danger the Irob minority community is bearing to date.
“By the time the statement was released, I was in Afar, and days later, when I came to Addis Abeba, I was arrested [accused of] allegations of recruiting conscripts to join the Tigray force and leading the war in collaboration with the TPLF leaders,” he recalled the time of his detention.
According to Dori, two months after his arrest, during the pretrial proceedings, the court ruled his release on bail, yet the police refused to release him even after the bail set by the court was paid. Since then the charges against him were revised to include another file under which the TPLF’s leaderships, including its leader Debretsion Gebremichal (Ph.D), were charged. The specifics in Dori’s charge has been further expanded to add allegations of “participating and leading a party in an election labeled as ‘illegal’ by the House of People’s Representatives.”
“I am not worried about my arrest, it is an honor to pay the price whatever it takes, let alone being arrested, for the people you are struggling for”Dori Asgedom
Assimba Democratic Party was one of the five opposition parties in Tigay which were registered to participate in the election for the regional state council which was held on 9 September 2020. The federal government had labeled the election “unconstitutional” and in “violation” of the country’s electoral law. The Tigray regional state’s electoral commission, which was constituted before the local election, however, proclaimed the election for the local council as “successful” and said Assimba had received 774 votes of the more than 2.6 million people registered to cast their ballots for the regional council, becoming fifth.
“I am not worried about my arrest, it is an honor to pay the price whatever it takes, let alone being arrested, for the people you are struggling for,” Dori said.
He asserts that by now, he is the only Tigrayan opposition party member/leader still languishing in a federal prison for two consecutive years, while many others with similar circumstances were released over the course of time. Kibrom Berhe, head of foreign affairs relations of the National Congress of Great Tigray (Baytona Party), another opposition political party from Tigray, is one such example who has been in and out of federal prison.
“I have been expecting the peace agreement to change my political incarcerations ensuring my swift release, in addition to, most importantly, addressing the sufferings the people of Tigray endured since the war broke out,” he said.
He further stressed that he is not a TPLF member, but rather an opposition party leader who had been on a peaceful quest of addressing political, social and economic issues for my people. He wonders how things rather transpired, “I am puzzled by my imprisonment under [a file charge along with] the TPLF’s leadership case while the recent peace deal between the federal government and the TPLF is bringing them close to each other,” he said.
One of a group of six defense lawyers, representing the defendants in the charge, including Dori, told Addis Standard that indeed the charges against Dori were rearranged into another file [the TPLF leaderships’ file] after he was granted a bail that was violated by the police, demanding his arrest for different accusation other than the charges he was initially arrested for.
According to the defense lawyer, after the charges were established, the defense team had presented its initial objection leading the trial reaching to constitutional inquiry that needed to determine on the jurisdiction of the court under which the trial is proceeding.
During the most recent trial held on 26 January this year at the Lideta Higher Court First Constitutional Bench, the court heard an appeal from Dori regarding the extended periods taking to resolve the constitutional inquiry implicating to a delayed justice, and being the only opposition political party leader from Tigray who is left in prison despite the release of others charged on a similar case. The court however indicated that it was up to the House of Federation that has the mandate to examine the constitutional inquiry sent to them of the House of the Federation, adding that he can appeal to the federal prosecutor;s office for any other considerations he wanted to be considered for release.
“Eritrean forces are in charge in Irob”
Seyoum Tesfay is ADP’s Bureau Head based in Mekelle. He shares similar ideas with Dori on the cause of the party’s leader arrest. Seyoum told Addis Standard that Dori’s arrest is connected with the being the first party to officially expose the invasion of the Eritrean forces at the onset of the war in Tigray, when there was no verifiable information about both the invasion and the atrocities being committed in Tigray. He said that the minority Irob community are in a terrible condition under the complete invasion of the Eritrean forces who are committing arrays of crimes against civilians.
According to a short biography of the Irob community posted by Omna Tigray, a Tigrayan advocacy group, “Irob, also referred to as Irob land or Adi Irob (ዓዲ ኢሮብ/ኢሮብ ዲክ) in Tigrigna/Saho, is located in the north eastern part of Tigray. It borders Eritrea to the north, Ethiopia’s Afar region to the east, and the remainder of Tigray to the southwest. Irob is part of a region in northeastern Tigray historically called Agame, which had Adigrat as its capital.”
The Irob community are one of the two minority groups in Tigray regional state. The other being the Kunama. Owing to the complete occupation of the Irob by Eritrean forces, the area has been inaccessible to aid organizations, leading to 65 per cent of the woreda population face “extreme food insecurity” as early as April 2022.
“Because of the limitations due to service terminations and blockade, our activities, have been very much limited,” Seyoum said, adding that the people of Irob remain under dire conditions even to a point of inability to properly bury deceased ones.
“There are no telephone, bank, electric power or water supply services functioning past Adigrat in the Irob”Seyoum Tesfay
According to Seyoum, no aid is reaching the people, it takes days even for those who manage to come to Adigrat for aid, and on top of it the aid that managed to reach Adigrat has its own unclear distribution process. “Adigrat is very close to Dowhan, a center of Irob, and what used to be paid from 30 to 65 ETB for transport fee to travel between Adigrat and Irob towns now costs 400 ETB just to travel loaded on top of trucks that have to drive on bumpy and rugged roads,” he said.
“The people, especially pregnant women or those with children are facing the plights to travel on such routes just to bring possible aid or get their seeds milled with additional charge of 150 ETB for milling and 250 ETB for transportation of 50 Kg seed. There are no telephone, bank, electric power or water supply services functioning past Adigrat in the Irob.” Seyoum describes the situation heartbroken. He further asserts that the aid distribution being told in the media is incomparable to the magnitude of the worsening need, especially by the displaced.
“The Eritrean forces are in charge in Irob and they don’t seem to leave any time soon. They have warned the community that they would execute 20 people if one of their force is attacked or killed by Tigray forces in the area,” he said.
One of the accounts documenting the atrocities in Irob is Irob Advocacy Association (IAA), a advocacy civil society established to promote the rights and betterment of Irob. The account published lists of civilians killed by Eritrean soldiers during a mass killing campaign between late Dec 2020 and early January 2021.
According to Fissuh Hailu, deputy manager of the IAA, this list was collected not very long from the time of the atrocities, through a narrow window of intermittent phone line restoration in major Tigray cities such as Mekelle and Adigrat, indicating that the actual calamity could be much higher.
Seyoum confirmed that the ENDF has recently entered Adigrat city but has not been seen in Irob. “Despite the political difference, it would have been better if the Tigray authorities also demand Dori’s release in light of his politically motivated arrest and for the sake of the people he is struggling for,” said Seyoum.
In a comment the chairperson gave during the early months of the party’s establishment in 2019, Dori said that his party was trying to represent the interests of the people living in the Ethio-Eritrea border area. The party strongly opposes the Algiers Agreement between the two countries signed after the 1998-2000 devastating border war, especially since more than half of Irob, as well as Gulu Mekda and Badem districts, will be demarcated into the Eritrean side, according to the ruling by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC). “Our people who are residing near the border have never been Eritreans but Ethiopians, and they have no desire [otherwise],” Dori said.
On 02 November last year, the AU-led permanent accession of hostilities was signed in Pretoria between the federal government and the TPLF, followed by a declaration of executive plan signed in Nairobi to end the federal-Tigray two years atrocious war. Although the Nairobi document stated that “disarmament of heavy weapons will be done concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF forces from the region,” Eritrean troops who took part in mass atrocities, rapes, looting, and abduction of civilians remain in Tigray, especially in complete control of the Irob and its surroundings.
Perhaps a symbolic representation of the continued suffering of the people of Irob under the occupation of Eritrean invading forces, Dori too remains behind bars in Ethiopia’s capital, although representatives of the two warring parties agreed to exchange hand shakes, hugs, and pleasantries while trying to patch up the terrible rift. Both the Pretoria and Nairobi deals don’t say anything about the fate of the Irob people.
Addis Standard has made several attempts to reach the officials of the Ministry of Justice for comments on the legal way forward about Dori and other the imprisoned Tigrayan politicians who are in Kality prison, to no avail. AS