Top Oromo opposition leader, Merera Gudina, is being held in solitary confinement – in a dark room with no window – 24 hours a day, his lawyer Wondimu Ibsa said on Wednesday.
It was the first time anyone has seen the leader of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) in 15 days.
“Merera came to the visitation area handcuffed,” Wondimu, who visited Merera at the notorious Maekelawi prison today along with another attorney appointed by OFC, told the Voice of America Afaan Oromo program. The only time Merera can leave the room is when the prison guards take him out for bathrooms, the lawyer said.
Merera was arrested on October 30 upon his return from a trip to Brussels where he spoke to members of the European parliament about Ethiopia’s state of emergency.
Ethiopia’s Communication Affairs Minister, Negeri Lencho, says his government has been providing Merera with protection as a prominent member of a legal opposition party. Lencho acknowledged that Merera, who he said is being held for violating the terms of the state of emergency, is very well respected in the country. “He met with terrorist organizations, groups that the Ethiopian parliament designated as terrorists,” Negeri told VOA Amharic, adding the court will decide whether to jail or release Merera once an investigation is completed.
Wondimu said Merera has been interrogated three times so far (without lawyers). And that he thinks authorities are likely to charge him both for terrorism and for breaking the country’s six-month long state of emergency provisions. The later change emanates from Merera being pictured, seated next to Oromo marathoner Feyisa Lilesa and leader of the opposition Patriotic Ginbot 7 Berhanu Nega at the EU parliament, where they all spoke.
Authorities have denied Merera family visitations since his arrest. Merera is diabetic. The family fears that the imprisonment will worsen and complicate his condition. Merera is a veteran politician and former member of parliament who is known for working with non-Oromo opposition groups across ethnic divides. This is why his arrest has angered Ethiopians of various political persuasions, according to Wondimu. Merera is also the Deputy Chairman of the main opposition coalition, Medrek.
For more than four decades, Merera has been crusading for democracy and respect for human rights and to see an Ethiopia that is home to all its citizens. He was unjustly imprisoned for 8 years during the communist Dergue regime.
His arrest came amid heightened crackdown on Oromo activists and dissidents. This has raised concerns about the future of Oromo opposition in Ethiopia. Six of Merera’s colleagues, including Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba and Assistant General Secretary Dejene Xafa, have been jailed since December 2015 for allegedly inciting the Oromo protests. The party’s general secretary Bekele Nega has also been under unspoken house arrest. Most of the party’s rank-and-file, as well as district level officers, are also behind bars.
“This arrest is yet another example of increasing restrictions on independent voices in Ethiopia,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said on a December 1. “And, frankly, further reinforces our view that Ethiopia’s declared state of emergency is perhaps being used to silence dissent and deny the constitutionally protected rights of Ethiopia’s citizens.”
“That’s contrary…to the promises of political reform made by the Ethiopian Government when the state of emergency was announced, so we’re watching it very closely.”
A campaign by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, identifies Merera’s deputy Bekele Gerba as a political prisoner and calls for his release. This symbolic gesture has been welcomed by Oromos and other Ethiopians. Tom Malinowski, the undersecretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs’ trip this week to Ethiopia provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. government to press Ethiopian authorities to release all political prisoners, including Bekele and Merera. Oromo-Americans are urging Malinowski to visit Merera and other jailed opposition leaders during his trip.
Ethiopia’s state of emergency declared on October 9 is making a bad situation worse. Towns and villages across Oromia remain militarized. Rampant arrests and disappearances have created unease and a growing sense of insecurity. A new report by Amnesty International released on December 13 documents “widespread, systematic and illegal” communication blackouts across Ethiopia, which includes the blocking of websites critical of those in power, shut down of mobile internet and social media since the protests started in Oromia in November 2015.