A court of injustice or a court of cruel joke?
I must confess that I take a bit of perverse pleasure in getting full vindication for my long held view that the regime in Ethiopia runs a kangaroo court system. For years, I have been saying that there is no rule of law in Ethiopia and that the courts are kangaroo courts puppet-mastered by the political bosses of the “Tigray People’s Liberation Front”. The jailing of Ato Asrat Tassie, the former Secretary General of Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, for “contempt of court” last week is fresh evidence of the travesty of justice and the comedy errors that routinely take place in that country’s kangaroo court system.
Ato Asrat is in jail for the “crime” of speaking truth to power; more accurately, for speaking truth to those who abuse and misuse political power cloaked in judicial robes. Ato Asrat is “charged” with “contempt of court” for expressing his feelings about a “documentary” and the possible outcome of his party’s defamation lawsuit against the “Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency” in the weekly Amharic magazine Adis Guday. Ato Asrat wrote, “Currently, the Akeldama drama is being aired on TV. This is happening during the ongoing trial of UDJ versus the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA), whereby the latter is accused of defaming the UDJ. We filed a suit against ERTA not expecting justice but just for the sake of recording it in history.”
In December 2011, in my commentary “Ethiopia: Land of Blood or Land of Corruption?” I shared my review of the “Akeldama” documentary-cum-docutrash fabricated to canonize the late Meles Zenawi by demonizing his opposition as blood thirsty terrorists.
‘Akeldama’ is sleazy melodrama. It has an exalted hero, dictator Meles Zenawi, the knight in shining armor, waiting in the shadows armed and ready to impale the wicked terrorists with his piercing lance. There is a damsel in distress, Lady Ethiopia. There is an assortment of scheming villains, conspirators, mischief-makers, subversives, foreign collaborators, and of course, terrorists who are cast in supporting roles as opposition leaders, dissidents and critics. It has a sensational and lurid plot featuring cloak-and-dagger conspiracies by neighboring countries, clandestine intrigues by Diaspora opposition elements, sedition and treason by local collaborators, and of course terrorism. Naturally, in the end, good triumphs over evil. Sir Meles Zenawi, knight errant, political wizard, archer and swordsman extraordinaire, delivers Lady Ethiopia from the clutches of the evil and sinister Al Qaeda, Al Shabbab and their minions and flunkeys, namely Ethiopia’s opposition leaders, dissidents and critics. Hollywood’s worst horror shows have nothing on “Akeldama”.
A follow up to “Akeldama” titled “Jihadawi Harakat” (“Holy War Movement”) was aired by the ruling regime in February 2013, purportedly exposing Islamic extremists and terrorists preparing for a “holy war” to establish an Islamic government in Ethiopia. I condemned that piece of docutrash in my commentary “The Politics of Fear and Smear in Ethiopia”:
‘Jihadawi Harakat’ is very similar in tone and content to ‘Akeldama’. The principal difference is that ‘Jihadawi Harakat’ targets Ethiopian Muslims for persecution and vilification. The ‘documentary’ as a whole argues that Ethiopian Muslims, who asked for nothing more than respect for their basic human rights and non-government interference in their religious affairs, are merely local chapters of blood thirsty terrorist groups such as Boko Haram (Nigeria), Ansar al Din (Mali), Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Hamas… Despite the lip service disclaimer that the ‘documentary’ is about a ‘few terrorists taking cover behind the Islamic faith to commit terrorism’ in Ethiopia, this ‘documentary’ stands as an ugly testament to official state religious intolerance and persecution rarely seen anywhere in Africa.
Ato Asrat’s incarceration for expressing his opinion about “Akeldama” is the regime’s underhanded way of punishing him and the UDJ for daring to challenge the content of that docutrash in “court”. It is also the regime’s sneaky way of thwarting the lawsuit by incapacitating Ato Asrat and diverting public attention from the defamation lawsuit. It is obvious the ruling regime is pissed off at Ato Asrat for standing up to them in their own kangaroo court and holding them accountable. No opposition leader or dissident ever “expects justice” in the regime’s kangaroo courts. Is that notorious fact a new revelation announced to the regime for the first time by Ato Asrat?
I have long documented the regime’s misuse and abuse of the courts for political purposes. In a 2007 commentary titled “Monkey Trial in Kangaroo Kourt”, I wrote about the Kafkaesque use of the courts by the ruling regime in Ethiopia to crush dissent and suppress criticism. Opponents are arrested for having done nothing wrong. Everything about the trial is a secret — the charges, the court procedures and the judges. They stand trial before know-nothing judges who do the bidding of their invisible puppet masters. Conviction is a foregone conclusion. Miscarriage of justice is a certainty.
I must confess that I am amused by the Kontempt citation of a Kafkaesque Kangaroo Kriminal Kourt. I am not surprised by the (in)justice meted out to Ato Asrat by the wise Ethiopian judges who incidentally remind me of the triple primates who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. I take my hat off to Ato Asrat for standing his ground and for refusing to defend against a bogus “contempt” charge in a three-ring judicial circus.
The law of contempt in Ethiopia’s kangaroo court
Is writing in a magazine article and offering a critical review of a documentary (a veritable docutrash) aired on television contempt of court? Is criticizing the political subversion of the judicial process by the ruling regime contempt of court? Is expressing doubts and concerns about the fairness of a thoroughly politicized judicial system contempt of court? Is it a contempt of court to express one’s opinion about politics and law? Is the exercise of one’s constitutional right to free expression contempt of court? Is complaining about denial of due process and justice contempt of court? Is calling a spade, a spade contempt of court? It telling the truth contempt of court?
As an “officer of the court” in United States federal and state courts, I am a great believer in the principle of contempt of court. Judicial proceedings are solemn and deliberative processes which must be respected by all parties participating in them. The dignity of the court as it conducts its proceedings must be respected all times. Outbursts and other disruptive and disrespectful conduct in court and disregard of valid court orders outside of court are properly sanctioned in contempt proceedings.
The law of contempt in Ethiopian criminal procedure has not changed for well over one-half century. The sanctions for contempt of court were originally incorporated in the Imperial Government’s “Ethiopian Rules of Criminal Procedure” (Proclamation No. 185 of 1961, revised) under Article 443. The original language was subsequently incorporated nearly verbatim in Article 449 of the “Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” (Proclamation No. 414/2004). Article 449 authorizes the court to hold a person in contempt of court if that person “in the course of a judicial inquiry, proceeding or hearing, in any manner insults, holds up to ridicule, threatens or disturbs the Court or a judge in the discharge of his duty…” (Emphasis added.)
The scope of application of contempt sanctions is limited to improper conduct in the courtroom during “the course of a judicial inquiry, proceeding or hearing.” It has no application outside of the courtroom, unless the contempt citation involves violation of a valid court order. Ato Asrat cannot be held liable for contempt for any writing he may do outside of a “course of judicial inquiry or proceeding.” More importantly, his comments could in no way be characterized as “contempt of court” under Article 449 since they do not “insult, ridicule, threaten or disturb the Court or a judge in the discharge of his duty…” Taken separately and/or contextually, his comments were aimed not at the court but the regime’s manipulation, interference and distortion of the judicial process. In sum, what Ato Asrat did is merely express his opinion outside of court in a magazine article about the general politicization of the judicial process.
One of the unmistakable marks of a kangaroo court is the abuse and misuse of the judicial process by politically appointed “judges” for partisan political advantage. By misusing its contempt powers, the “court” that jailed Ato Asrat improperly involved itself in political matters in which the UDJ and the ruling regime are in adversarial posture. Suffice it to say that a court that deliberately and intentionally disregards its legal and ethical obligations and injects itself in politics is itself in contempt of justice.
It is fascinating to observe the hijacking of legitimate judicial authority by hardened criminals. Imagine the lunatics taking over the asylum; imagine the criminals taking over the courthouse. Everyone knows the make-believe “justice” system in Ethiopia is the handmaiden of a kleptocracy, a thugtatorship. The “court” adjudicating Ato Asrat’s “case’ is incapable of handling the truth or administering justice; it is an instrument for the judicial lynching of regime opponents.
Let’s talk about kontempt of justice in kangaroo kourt
Let’s talk about contempt of justice. For over two decades, the late Meles Zenawi and his successors today have been in contempt of justice. They have used, abused and misused the justice system and the courts for their political purposes and to persecute and prosecute their political opponents. They have used the courts convict their political opponents on bogus charges of treason and terrorism. They have incarcerated untold numbers of their opponents without due process of law. They have used the legal process to deprive citizens of property rights. They have shielded themselves from all legal accountability. They have even used the courts to neutralize and incapacitate their former comrades-in-arms on bogus charges of corruption.
In January 2012, journalist Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye were convicted on “evidence” that would have been laughed out of court in any civilized justice system. Reeyot was convicted for writing magazine articles and posting them on websites, communicating by email and for having telephone conversations with other journalists. She was sentenced to a 14 year prison term and fined birr 33,000. Amnesty International declared, “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and Woubshet] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.” Human Rights Watch was equally clear about their innocence: “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….” Reeyot’s and Woubshet’s conviction is contempt of justice in kangaroo kourt!
In June 2012, Eskinder Nega was found guilty of “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement, and attempt” to commit terrorist acts and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The evidence against Eskinder consisted of nearly inaudible recordings of telephone conversations and other comments and video of a town hall meeting in which Eskinder discussed the differences between Arab countries and Ethiopia. Eskinder has been honored for his exemplary defense of the cause of press freedom by nearly every major international press organization. In January 2014, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers awarded Eskinder its prestigious 2014 Golden Pen of Freedom. Jailing a journalist for 18 years for blogging is contempt of justice in kangaroo kourt!
In October 2011, Meles proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while these individuals were undergoing trial. Meles declared Persson and Schibbye are terrorist accomplices and collaborators: “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists. Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”
By publicly declaring the guilt of Persson and Schibbye, Meles made it clear that the whole judicial proceeding is a joke. The trial is a “show trial”. The judges are puppets who do what they are told. In short, Meles declared to the world that the court trying Persson and Schibbye is a kangaroo court. After Meles emphatically declared the two journalists are “messenger boys of a terrorist organization”, what judge in Ethiopia (except Birtukan Midekssa) would have the balls to stand up and say, “Meles! You are in contempt of court for violating the journalists’ right to be presumed innocent! You are in contempt of justice for trashing the constitutional rights of the accused!
In 2009, Meles’ top minion labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “tried” and “convicted” and given long sentences. For Meles, court trials were nothing more than circus sideshows staged for the benefit of Western donors who know better but go along to get along with him. That is contempt of justice in kangaroo kourt!
In December 2008, Meles railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, to prison on the bogus charge that she had denied receiving a pardon. She was not even accorded the ceremonial kangaroo court proceedings. Zenawi sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later sadistically declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Macho Meles was so pissed off at Birtukan, the only woman in Ethiopia who stood up to his thuggish bullying, he could not wait to try her in his kangaroo court. He “pardoned” her in October 2010 after forcing her to ask for pardon. Jailing one’s political opponent without due process of law and forcing them to beg for pardon is contempt of justice!
In 2005, after Meles jailed the country’s major opposition leaders and editors of several newspapers, he declared, “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason… The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged as Meles predicted and convicted in kangaroo court. That is contempt of justice in kangaroo kourt!
The fact of the matter is that everyone knows Ethiopia’s “courts” are classic kangaroo courts. Everyone knows the so-called judges in political trials of opposition groups, dissidents and others are party hacks and lackeys dressed in judicial regalia. This is not the conclusion of a partisan advocate but the considered view of the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.” The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices concluded: “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence. A criminal court system that is subject to significant political intervention is contempt of justice!
Ethiopian justice or JUST US?
I have long criticized and caricatured the “justice sector” of the “Tigray People’s Liberation Front” as sham, corrupt and whimsical. What passes off as a “justice system” in Ethiopia is little more than a marketplace where “justice” is bought and sold in a monopoly long controlled by one man, one party and today a bunch of faceless, nameless and clueless apparatchiks who skulk in the shadows of power. The judicial system is an elaborate hoax complete with make-believe tribunals, hand-picked judges, witless prosecutors, bogus procedures and predetermined outcomes. It is a justice system in which universal principles of law and justice are disregarded, subverted, perverted and mocked. It is a system where the poor, the marginalized, the audacious journalists, dissidents, opposition and civic society leaders are legally lynched despite the criticisms, pleas and bootless cries of international human rights organization. It is a system in which regime leaders, their families, friends and cronies are above the law and spell justice “JUST US”.
Reforming the Ethiopian JUST US sector?
In 2008, the National Judicial Institute for the Canadian International Development Agency undertook a comprehensive study of the “independence, transparency and accountability in the judiciary of Ethiopia” and made 33 practical recommendations. Among the key recommendations included: 1) demonstration of “respect for the principle of judicial independence, both by judges and by the executive; 2) implementation of a “more rigorous and transparent recruitment process to ensure that the most meritorious [judicial] candidates are selected; 3) appointment of “neutral, competent judges [to guard] against influence and corruption, and [to] guarantee effectiveness of the courts for Ethiopia’s citizens”; 4) “successful implementation of justice sector reforms to inspire public trust; and 5) provision of “appropriate ethical training to court staff .” It is unlikely that anyone in the regime has taken the time to read, let alone study, the report and its findings and implement at least some of the major recommendations. I know that is expecting too much, which is why I expect no improvements in the Ethiopian justice sector. A kangaroo court by any other name is still a kangaroo court and justice is spelled JUST US.
Words of solace to Ato Asrat and the UDJ
The bogus contempt charge against Ato Asrat is a virulent form of judicial intimidation, or more accurately political intimidation and bullying in judicial garb. The contempt charge is a test to see if Ato Asrat and the UDJ will fold or fight. Ato Asrat chose to fight by refusing to go along with an unjust application of the contempt law. The broader message is that the regime will misuse the “courts” to silence, muzzle and gag its opponents.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that while he “in no sense [would] advocate evading or defying the law,” he believed that one has a moral duty to break and not cooperate with an unjust law. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail Dr. King wrote, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…An unjust law is no law at all.” Dr. King “became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” Gandhi, who refused to obey unjust colonial laws and was arrested and jailed numerous times, wrote, “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
Ato Asrat has followed the path of Gandhi and Dr. King. By refusing to defend against a bogus charge of contempt of court, Ato Asrat has demonstrated his noncooperation with those running a kangaroo court circus. His conscience told him that the contempt charge is unjust and now he “willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice.”
I applaud Ato Asrat for his defiant act of civil disobedience. Ato Asrat deserves our utmost respect, admiration and support for his exemplary act of nonviolent resistance. He has taught us a great lesson: We all have a moral obligation of “noncooperation with evil as much as moral obligation to cooperate with good.”
Ato Asrat’s incarceration for “contempt of court” is the regime’s first shot across the bow. It is a warning to all opposition party leaders and members and dissidents as the regime makes preparations for the 2015 make-believe elections (N.B. I did not say to steal). The regime is testing the mettle of opposition leaders. Will they cower under the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention withdraw from challenging the regime? Will they run and hide from thugs who will use their power to impose their will? Or will they stand up and declare, “We will nonviolently resist and defiantly refuse to cooperate with your unjust laws and arbitrary actions that suppress our rights to free expression, press freedom, assembly, free and fair elections and trash our human rights!” Time will tell, but everyone should be well-advised that the regime has fired its first shot across the bow by jailing Ato Asrat.
Hijacking the judiciary is the first refuge of African dictatorships.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: