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Is Ethiopia Creating a Revolving Door in its Criminal Justice System?

By Seifesellasie Gebre
Tigrai Online, May 28, 2018

Is Ethiopia Creating a Revolving Door in its Criminal Justice System?
The Ethiopian Government has quite inexplicably been rushing lately to pardon and release thousands of prisoners including among them many deadly criminals


The Ethiopian Government has quite inexplicably been rushing lately to pardon and release thousands of prisoners including among them many deadly criminals and dangerous arsonists. The official justification  behind the Government's recent measures is to bring about national reconciliation and bring an end to the recent turmoil. However, reconciliation with whom? with peaceful and law abiding opposition parties and individuals or with deadly criminals and arsonists such as Andargachew Tsige who openly declared war on our Constitution and Constitutional order as secretary-general of Ginbot-7, a violent organization based in Eritrea and declared as terrorist by the Ethiopian Parliament?; OR with Demeke Zewde, the notorious former Colonel who ambushed and murdered eleven innocent policemen in broad daylight from his hideout on the roof of a building in Gondar two years ago? OR with the thousands of organized criminal youth gangs and arsonists who are the foot soldiers of Ginbot-7 ?, OR with OLF and Juhar Mohamed who have blood in their hands and who burned down hundreds of millions of Birr worth of state and private properties?. Dealing with peaceful and law abiding opposition political forces8 with differing opinions or pardoning and releasing their party members for minor legal offenses for the sake of national reconciliation is one thing, appeasing and allowing ordinary law violators and criminals to escape legal accountability and justice is completely unacceptable. The latter illegal practice seriously undermines the Constitution, rule of law, and legal accountability. It sets a bad precedent and sends the wrong message to and emboldens future possible law violators and criminals.

A famous world leader once said, "To forgive the terrorists is up to God, but to arrange the meeting is up to me." This quote on the surface might appear overly simplistic but it goes deep into the heart of rules of engagement in a modern democratic society. With the exception of some theocratic governments (e.g. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States), almost all secular governments have long embraced the concept of the separation of church and state. While the authority to pardon or commute sentences of convicted criminals is often assigned to heads of governments in parliamentary forms of government as in ours, it is rarely used and only in special circumstances. However, the inexplicable wholesale pardons of ordinary criminals in our country in the last two years “under the pretext of national reconciliation” is cause for grave concern. Even if our effort is to bring about 'national reconciliation' which is of course a noble idea, labeling deadly criminals as “political prisoners” and releasing them would definitely cause a serious and permanent damage to our judicial system by eroding peoples' faith in the system. Furthermore, what message are we sending to the victims of these criminals be it individuals, business enterprises, public coffers that were emptied of hard-earned national treasure as a result of corruption, and loss of Foreign Direct Investment and capital inflows (Dangote) due to disruption of peace and security caused by vigilantes? I am of the opinion that the existing judicial system is woefully inadeuquate both in terms of punishing convicted criminals and establishing a strong deterrence to others who might be so inclined. The old adage "if you do the crime, you gotta do the time" is relevant here more than ever. After all, the purpose of criminal justice system is designed not only to punish convicted criminals but also to serve as a deterrence. We hear about repeated crimes committed by certain greedy individuals  who mix gypsum with teff, or mix red clay with cayenne pepper (berbere) etc but we never hear about their sentencing unless it is broadcast on ETV on odd hours of the weekend or during the week when everyone is at work.


Many genuine and concerned Ethiopians are questioning whether the Government’s recent reckless and irresponsible wholesale pardons are based on valid legal grounds. Let alone the PM, even the President of FDRE does not have the Constitutional authority to fully pardon and release murderers such as Colonel Demeke or the thousands of killers and arsonists. The maximum authority the President has is to commute death sentence to life imprisonment. After all, it was the Ethiopian Parliament that declared Ginbot-7 as a terrorist organization and its members as terrorists. Unless this proclamation is officially lifted by the same Parliament which is doubtful, the PM does not possess the legal authority to pardon neither the said terrorist organization nor its members such as Andargachew Tsige. As a reminder, the Government officially issued a political Decree about three months ago that set three clearly defined criteria that should be met before any consideragtion for pardons are made. The first criteria  stipulates that the prisoner should be clean from any murder case and have no blood in his/her hands. The second criteria states that he/she should not have direct hands in crimes of arson and destruction of properties. The third and final criteria makes it clear that the prisoner should not engage in subversive criminal activities to change the Constitution and the Constitutional order by force of arms. Since none of the above legal conditions appear to have been met, the Executive Branch  may have defied the Legislative Branch's (i.e. parliamentary) proclamation by granting wholesale pardons.

I wish to ask Mr. PM! what about the issue of justice for the thousands of people killed, wounded and kidnapped by the foot soldiers of Mr. Andargachew’s Ginbot-7 along the Ethio-Eritrean border for the last ten years? or for the hundreds killed and thousands wounded and hundreds of millions worth of State and private property burned by the freed youth hooligans and killers? Or for the families of the 11 innocent souls killed in Gondar by Colonel Demeke ? Aren’t they humans and Ethiopians? Don’t they have the Constitutional rights to justice including redress including compensation? Why are they being denied justice as if their lives are inconsequential?. Article 25 of FDRE Constitution states “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law”. Where is then the equality in this case when first-degree murderers are set free and their innocent victims denied justice? Is the Federal Government naïve enough to believe that national reconciliation would be achieved and the Ethiopian people would get peace by compromising the rule of law and by appeasing and setting free such deadly murderers? Appeasement only leads to further and bigger crimes. When this whole saga started, hooligans were resorting to harassments, minor physical altercations and arsons and the government's response was by and large "catch, reprimand, counsel, and release." Instead of nipping vigilantism in the bud while simultaneously addressing the genuine concerns and grievances of the people, the government chose to slap those vigilantes on the wrist and send them home. As a result, instead of the turmoil abating, those beneficiaries of the government's, what I call "Catch & Release Prisoner Program," started resorting to deadly terrorist attacks as witnessed in the recent cold-blooded murder of Dangote Cement General Manager, driver, and secretary. Again, laws are enacted to prevent citizens from committing crimes and if committed, to make the perpetrators legally accountable and bring them to justice.

The Ethiopian People are demanding more than ever before for full and unconditional respect and enforcement of the rule of law without exceptions, special considerations and appeasements as it is the only guarantee they have for their precious lives, well-being and hard-earned properties. Without the rule of law and legal accountability, peace and stability, democratic governance and economic development are unthinkable. Our Country should be governed by the rule of law and not by the rule of the jungle. Furthermore, I propose that even the death penalty should be introduced and applied in cases of deadly crimes.


The labeling of ordinary criminals as “political prisoners” in order to pardon and release them is totally inappropriate and very dangerous. I believe we have unwittingly fallen into the trap of accepting foreign media's and other self-appointed human rights groups' (Amnesty International, Human rights Watch) definition of what constitutes a political prisoner. Webster Dictionary defines a political prisoner as 'a person put in prison becausue of his or her political beliefs.' I am strongly against incarcerating anyone who expresses their political beliefs as long as they don't instigate violence by preaching ethnic or religious hatred. It might be hard to believe, but unlike citizens of some western countries, Ethiopians by and large do read about the affairs of their government and almost everyone has a political belief or opinion that sometimes may not agree with what their representatives do in their name. If we go by the official definition of a 'political prisoner', over half of Addis Ababa adult residents including yours truly would be behind bars because of our political beliefs that do not conform with that of the official government position. The reality on the ground however is quite different. We witness individuals and groups authoring editorials and commentaries critical of the government in local print, broadcast, and social media on a daily basis without any fear of retribution. So the question becomes; Did our government imprison individuals for their political beliefs in which case the arresting authorities should be behind bars instead?. Or did these so-called political prisoners violate any laws for which they were convicted after having been granted due process and legal counsel etc?. If the latter is true, then why does the government insist on referring to these individuals as "political prisoners"? Who is giving the green light for the wholesale pardons ? Was it the Office of the President which is the only constitutionally mandated body to approve the pardons? Are we opening the prison gates wide open to let these criminals free because of some pending renovation of the prison facilities? The public demands answers to these questions. Whatever flaws and shortcomings there are in the judicial system, let's fix them. But for God’s sakes e, let's not make a mockery of our justice system by continuing with this irresponsible, reckless, and embarrassing "Catch and Release" law enforcement practice.

Let us make the rule of law prevail before we are mockingly tagged as the 'Pardon Capital of Africa' in the eyes of the world.

May God bless Ethiopia.


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