By Awol K Allo
A high profile trial against protest leaders – intellectuals, activists and elected members of “The Ethiopian Muslim Arbitration Committee” – is shaking the Ethiopian political landscape. The government argues that the accused harbour “extreme” Islamic ideologies. It accuses them of conspiracy with terrorist groups to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia.
The accused have professed their innocence and denied the charges. In the courtroom, they present the prosecution’s case as the continuation of repression by legal means, which resembles the totalitarian perversion of truth and justice of Stalinist and Apartheid regimes.
While letting the legal process take its course, the accused are exposing the agonising and ultimately insoluble contradiction between the government and its laws. They protest the complicity of the court in the ultimate travesty, daring to speak truth to power, a la Daniel Berrigan: “You cannot set up a court in the kingdom of the blind, to condemn those who see, a court presided over by those who would pluck out the eyes of men and call it rehabilitation.”
In December 2011, Muslim activists began a peaceful protest against what they saw as a coercive imposition of a little known sect of Islam called al-Ahbash and its teachings on Ethiopian Muslims and their leaders. In the following months, protesters elected a 17-member “Arbitration Committee” to lead the protest. This protest was unique in many ways: It was innovative and playful. It was a renegade movement that refused to be threatened by prosecution or persecution and appealed to ideals and values more profound than “crime and punishment”.
After months of intrigues, negotiations, and all manners of malicious turns and twists, the government brought its fight against the community into the courtroom. By picking one of the most explosive charges available, the government transformed the political act of protest into a criminal act of terrorism. By criminalising people’s cries for dignity and justice, by twisting their dissent and moral objection into a shocking security threat, the indictment transforms the proclamation of dissent into an act of terror.
A criminal trial “is an indictment of individual behaviour”. The trial expresses and represents the normative idea of “calling to account”. It marks a moment at which a body-politic calls one or more of its members to account for a violation of its norms. In “calling to account” the body politic names the accused as a party to a dispute. This act of naming signifies something central to the legitimacy of the trial: It gives the accused a “speaking position”. The accused should be entitled to give an account of themselves and the dispute in which they are named; the right to contest the allegation. [continue on next page]