By Mahlet Fasil @MahletFasil
Addis Abeba, October 23/2020 – During a hearing held yesterday at the Federal High Court Lideta Branch, the defense team representing Eskinder Nega, Founder of the opposition Balderas for genuine Democracy, and four other facing terrorism charges with Eskinder, objected the prosecutor’s request for closed session and behind curtain witness hearing against defendants.
In yesterday’s hearing the federal prosecutors have presented a written response to the earlier objection filed by the defense attorney and tabled a request for witnesses to testify in a closed hearing and behind a curtain for “their safety”. Prosecutors argued that witnesses were known individuals to the defendants and their associates. “If they testify openly, they may be in danger. The witnesses are afraid of their safety because of the weight of the case. Previously during the pretrial witnesses hearing, they have been threatened including death threats, ” the federal prosecutors said.
The prosecutors added that they have 20 witnesses lined up and want 16 of them to testify in a closed court and the other four to testify behind a curtain. They also insisted that because the nature of the crimes the defendants were suspected to have committed involved inciting religious and ethnic violence, which constituted a threat to national security.
However, in a seven page plea presented to the court the first defendant Eskinder Nega argued against the prosecutors notion. “Even for the defendants of the ‘Red Terror’ case, witnesses were not asked to testify behind a curtain; when those defendants were released after completing their prison terms, they were peacefully reunited with the community including those who testified against them. This shows that there is no culture of vengeance against witnesses in Ethiopia,” Eskinder said.
He also cited examples of court proceedings of genocide cases in Germany and in Rwanda where witnesses testified in public trials. Eskinder further argued that putting witnesses behind a curtain is a Latin American trend in which witnesses testify against drug trafficking defendants for their safety, and such practice does not fit and is not practiced in the Ethiopian context.
Eskinder also asked the prosecutors to respect their earlier promises to make the whole process transparent for the court to hold a public hearing, including allowing the media to cover witness hearing.
Keleb Seyoum, the third defendant in the file, also argued along with Eskinder againist prosecutor’s request to protect witnesses whether they are her acquaintances or not.
Askale Demissie, the fourth defendant in the file, told the court that she wanted to see and cross examine the witnesses in the case she was accused on: organizing residents of Addis Abeba to incite violence.
“The trial should be overturned and the testimony should be made public,” the defense team argued. “There are 20 types of witness protections listed in ethiopia’s witness protection Proclamation. However, prosecutors are now requesting the maximum protection of witnesses which has not be practiced previously.”
The defense lawyers also disputed prosecutor’s statement that witnesses were threatened during the pretrial sessions after testifying behind the curtain and said the prosecutors “did not present any evidence to the court that they had been threatened.”
The sixth and the seventh defendants are still being tried in absentia and the court ordered the Federal Police Investigator to appear before the court on December 8, 2020 to explain why the two defendants were not present.
After listening to the two side’s argument on the the status of hearing from the prosecutor’s witnesses the court adjourned the next hearing until December 8, 2020 to rule on the status witness hearing.
Eskinder has asked s closer date and told the court: “we are scarifying for every minute spent, and we are caught during our preparations for election. Therefor we ask the court to inform superior bodies that we need time for election.” However, the court upheld its decision to hold the next hearing on December 08. AS