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Ethiopia: Where conscience is constantly on trial

The notion of “calling to account” imposes a great responsibility. It means that the government must treat the suspects as responsible moral agents, and must allowed them “a voice in the interpretation of those norms”. The accusers must submit themselves to the same rules they apply to the accused – even more so when the accused is a public adversary. In a proper trial, “those who conduct the trial are also on trial themselves”.

This trial, however, is the complete negation of these principles. In fact, it is the most outrageous fraud imaginable. It is a fraud that best represents the vile baseness and moral bankruptcy of those in power who use the authority of the law and the devices of justice to mute peoples’ cries for truth and dignity. In the course of this trial, the government trampled on every facet of their fair trial rights, including their right to presumption of innocence, the right to open and public trial, the right to examine witnesses and contest evidence. It produced and broadcasted a fictitious thriller movie – Jihadawi Harekat – complete with tortured confessions, hearsays, and a nest of vile gossips – all in the name of fighting terrorism.

This, then, is not a trial aimed at revealing truth and determining guilt or innocence. It is a hostile act, an individualised act of war designed to extend the state’s power of prosecution and punishment beyond legal limit. To be sure, it is an authentic show trial designed to squash dignity and crush collective resistance to this revolting crime.

Courting conscience

For the accused, this is a trial of conscience – the purely moral act of dissent against the regime’s outrageous attempt to convert the entire community into a new religious sect. As defendants in a show trial, they know that they could not be found innocent without the government being guilty and they insist on using the moment of the trial to proclaim, defend, and espouse those notions and ideas that compelled them to act in the face of jail and torture; to expose the indelible filth that sullied the Ethiopian justice system.

They want to assume the role of prosecutor and judge, and communicate this sorry state of affairs to the public gallery – a strategy reminiscent of black liberationist movements of the last century. They insisted that their trial be held in the Millennium Hall, the largest hall in Addis Ababa, so that they would turn the event into a “repertoire of resistance”.

While they expect neither mercy nor decency from the court, they know that the spectre of its violence will continue to unsettle it from within and precipitate its normative renewal. As two of the prisoners, Abubaker Ahmed and Ahmedin Jebel, told the court, “We stand before the court not because we expect justice but because we wanted to bear witness to history.”

They know that law produces a determinate effect but its meaning and content cannot be exhausted in one single determination. They may be found guilty and condemned but they know that the conscientious subject is not totally exhausted or absorbed in this single condemnation. They know that some of the most revered individuals in the history of enlightened thought, whether historical figures such as Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates, or those who changed history in our own time such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, have been accused and condemned under the law.

For subjects that are torn between obeying unjust laws and following their conscience, for those who encounter dehumanising and death-dealing legislations and institutions, dissent is an absolute calling that comes from the inner most sanctum of the spirit. When the state mobilises unjust laws to condemn the innocent, disobedience becomes an absolute responsibility that transcend all manners of private calculations.

Finally, if we look beyond the surreptitious violence of adjudication; if we attend to that which escapes the innocence of courts and their symbolic personification of power; we will discern the promise of a transformative renewal made possible by these renegade claims.

Awol K Allo is a Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera



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