Yonatan Tesfaye’s defense witness hearings begins – Jan 05, 2017 hearing

The 4th criminal bench of Federal High Court Lideta Branch started hearing of Yonatan Tesfaye’s defense witnesses on 05 Jan 2017. Yonatan’s defense lawyer, Mr Shibiru Belete informed the court that all defense witnesses, except Dr. Merera Gudina, appeared.

Yonatan has given his own defense testimonial before witnesses hearing.

What I used to post on my Facebook timeline was meant only to my friends who were interested to my ideas. The accusation related to ‘inciting the public against the government’ is just an illusion. Given the fact that the content of my posts have nothing to do with encouraging terrorism, the articles could in no way achieve the alleged crime I am accused of even if we assume that they have had the opportunity to reach the greater public. The Facebook posts were all about those hot agendas of the day in our country. Discussing those issues as an individual citizen was simply about practicing my constitutional right to freedom expression.  

It is natural and a globally accepted thought that ‘at a time when the law becomes an instrument to suppress, protest becomes a law of conscience’. No one can change it.  It is a philosophical principle too.  Had there been any right bodies to listen to what I said, all the inconveniences we face these days would not have happened at all.  Residents of west Shewa of Oromia were driven to a protest by the decision of the government to hand over the Chilmo forest in their residence to an investor in October 2016. Had the government addressed their refusal properly, the protest would not have erupted and resulted in the chaos we have experienced since then. As a citizen, I had to play my part in minimizing the potential risk. Yes, I did suggest that residents should protect themselves in their own ways as the government started attacking them contrary to the logic that it should have been there to protect them. 

Every single life is worthy. But a minimum of 62 university students were murdered before I was detained. Who knows, those murdered lives could have been worth changing this whole world.  Different government officials [including Prime Minister Haile-Mariam himself] attributed the causes of the chaos to poor governance. They did officially apologize for the inconvenience too. A single life is more than a material resource worth a million birr. If a driver, while transporting 20 passengers, notices the car’s breaker no longer operates and decides to control the car by crashing it with a nearby fence before it endangers the lives of those 21 lives, the driver shall not be punished for causing damage on the material resource-the car. He is not damaging the car. He is saving lives.

I had to defend those who were being murdered on the streets. Hence, using my right to expression, I did suggest way outs.  I don’t mind if anybody thinks doing so is wrong.  It is an honor to me and I expect the judgment from History and God” Yonatan concludes.

After the hearing of the defendant’s self- testimonial, the defendant’s lawyer presented three professional witnesses; Law expert Yacob Hailemariam (PhD), philosophy professor -Dagnachew Assefa (PhD), and activist Befekadu Hailu suggesting that the first two defense witnesses would explain how  the acts of the detainee should be treated from the perspective of freedom of expression and international conventions the country signed whereas the third would explain how posts on personal timelines should be treated when compared to any formal journalistic piece on formal media outlets.

The prosecutor on his part asked the court to overrule the defendant’s testimonials lauding his objection on whether the first two witnesses are the right bodies to interpret the law and if the testimonials by the third defendant have anything to do with the charge. The prosecutor claimed that the only bodies responsible to interpret the law are the court and the House of Federation not the first two individuals.

Lawyer Shibiru said, “at the time the prosecutor claimed for witness testimonial hearings to prove the alleged crime my client allegedly committed, the question of who interprets the law was not an issue at all. My client’s right to defend himself shall not be compromised in any pity reasoning.”, and asked for the objection to be overruled.

The lawyer further explained the rationales that could make hearing the defense witnesses appropriate. He asked the court to take judicial notice on the fact that the first two have got rich knowledge [due to their rich academic and career exposures] on the topic the detainee is charged with, which makes hearing right according to the lawyer.  Responding to the prosecutor’s objection on the relevance of points of the third defense witness, the lawyer further claimed that the case of the client has directly to do with freedom of expression as the charge have to do with Article 6 of the Anti-Terrorism Law that deals with promoting terror through written materials. Examining both petitions, the judges overruled the prosecution objection.

The first to appear to was Dr. Yacob Hailemariam. After a brief introduction about himself particularly his academic background in law, his career experiences both as a lawyer and a lecturer, his prior participation in the team that was organized to investigate the Rwandan genocide, as well as his previous experience as an advisor at United Nations, Yacob explained how the case of Yonatan differs from the concept and practice of terrorism.

Activist Yonatan Tesfaye

“Terrorism is always shocking. It is treated as crimes such as war crime and genocide. Terrorism is an international crime. A terrorist is supposed to be caught in Interpol wherever he goes. Cases such as those in Kenya and other parts of our world that resulted in deaths of various lives are internationally recognized as terrorist acts. Having said so, Dr. Yacob contended that presenting Yonatan’s act of sharing his own ideas on social media as if it is an act of terror ‘is simply overlooking and underestimating how shocking terrorism is’.

The next defense witness was Dr. Dagnachew Assefa. Introducing himself  in brief particularly about his academic background in philosophy of the law and his career experience as a lecturer, Dr. Dagnachew argued that everyone is free to compose his/her own idea and express it under given conditions that the content of the expression cannot be censored. He attributed his points to the four international human rights declarations since 1948 and stressed the fact that Ethiopia is not only among the countries that accepted the declarations but it had also been among those that participated from the beginning in drafting. He also noted that the respecting citizens’ right to expression does result in acceptance to government as it is a key element in democratization.

 “I went through the articles the defendant posted. He did practice his right. He is accused of writing his on ideology in the charge. It has been some eight years since I got back to Ethiopia. I have been writing my own ideologies in all these years. I haven’t ever been detained for it. This should have worked for this young man too. What he wrote might not sound correct. Let’s say if I were his teacher, I might rank the soundness of his points ‘C’ or ‘D’. But that [writing unsounding ideology] never makes him a criminal. Alike it is a right to praise the incumbent; to criticize too should be a right. Problem that follows restricting writing and speech is more dangerous than problem that comes from allowing the freedom of speaking and writing.”

When the prosecutor interrupted and asked him whether he is accredited to be a witness, Dr. Dagnachew responded “I have no idea about where a license to be a witness is given. Is there any concerned body that gives such a license? Where can I get it?” he questioned.

The next defense witness – Befekadu Hailu- who mentioned that he has earned a first degree in management information system and claimed that he is experienced enough to give professional testimony regarding media use, on his part, noted that Yonatan’s act of tabling political issues in the country to discussion on social media is not only his right as a citizen but also his expected responsibility as a politician. Reminding that he had been writing refusing killings by government forces, he claimed that the written pieces were not meant to endanger the lives of others instead it was aimed at saving lives.

Responding to the question from the judges regarding how sure he is about whether government forces murdered anyone, Befekadu claimed that the murder by government forces is a universal truth citing the reports revealed by the human rights commission that states 173 individuals killed by security forces as one example.

Befekadu explained to the court that he has career experience as a production manager at a radio program aired by the Addis Ababa city administration, chief editor at Weyiyit magazine, a member of Zone Nine blogging collective, as well as his ample experience in writing various commentaries to different web and print media outlets made him the right person to give professional testimony.

Lawyer Shibiru indicated that the next testimonies would be from Mulatu Gemechu and Bekele Gerba both from Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and asked the court to take a judicial notice on the causes and overall situation of the political unrest in Oromia in 2015/16.

The prosecutor on his part expressed its objection to the court claiming that the defense witnesses should not be allowed to testify. The defense lawyer, on his part, argued that the issue of hearing witnesses had already given verdict before so that it should not be an issue again. He further claimed that given the fact that the witnesses are politicians so that they can witness what they know, what they heard and what they saw and asked the court to take judicial notice accordingly. examining the petitions, judges gave verdict that the judicial notice on which witnesses would present testimonials would be decided later but the defendant’s right to defend himself should be respected. Hence, they overruled prosecution objection. The first witness Ato Mulatu explained the reasons behind the political unrest in Oromia noting that the protest had gone viral following the 2015 general election; efforts had been made to address the questions raised by OFC since then. He further reminded that students of Gincha elementary school started protesting following the town administration allegedly confiscated the school for housing purpose and students were able to concur and take the school  back  in their protest, the same case had been happened following officials attempt to slicing the stadium of the town for their own personal gains, the Chilmo forest given to private investor resulted in a detention of over 70 OFC members and the attempt of the government to implement the master plan.

Following that judges asked that the next witness Bekele Gerba should better not be heard if his judicial notices are the same to that of Ato Mulatu. But the lawyer insisted that the next witness had a different testimony so that hearing his testimony would be appropriate. Judges gave verdicts to hear the witness focusing only on the different issues which are not mentioned before. Attributing the causes of the political unrest to the controversial master plan and the privatization of Chilmo forest, Ato Bekele defended that Yonatan’s posts had nothing to do with the chaos.

The court has adjourned the hearing of the remaining defense witnesses; Yonatan’s father Priest Tesfaye Regassa, his friend Ephrem, his sister Gedamnesh and jailed journalist Eskinder Nega to January 26, 2017. The court also gave order that the only defense witness who couldn’t attend the hearing that day –Dr. Merera- to be brought to the next hearing.

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