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Malicious Prosecution – Using Legal Proceedings to Harass People in Ethiopia

By Ermias D Mengesha 
Last updated on February 17 1:05 P.M. Toronto Time

When we were in law school, we used jokingly say, “We are law students in a country where there is no justice.” Some readers may find this cliché. The word “justice” is used in many different settings and is sometimes abused out of context. According to the philosopher John Rawls, “justice is the first virtue of the social institution.” Many other things are said to be just and unjust, not only laws, institutions, and social systems but also particular actions, including decisions, judgments, and imputations. It has been more than 70 years since Ethiopia adopted “modern” civil and criminal laws from western (mainly French) sources. These laws are still in force in the country except for the criminal code, which was repealed once. However, the existence of codified statutes does not bring justice on its own. Back then, in our formative ages as young law students, we joked about the non-existence of justice in the country because justice was mainly left to the whim of individuals, particularly members of the ruling class. This is the salient feature of Ethiopia’s modern political history. What bewilders me today is that those same people who mocked studying law in a “lawless country” have themselves become part of that anarchic system, and they are now continuing that lawlessness we disparaged together. 

The recent schism within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church is a good example. On January 22, three Orthodox bishops announced that they had created a Holy Synod of Oromia, Nations, and Nationalities without authorization from the existing Synod under Patriarch Abuna Matias. Following the church’s rules, the Patriarch called an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod. The Synod excommunicated the three bishops and their following episcopates. Disregarding the validity of this religious practice, the government equated the two groups as having equally valid claims. In apparent disregard for the country’s constitution, it sided with the splinter faction. 

The government’s affront to the principle of the separation of church and state and its blatant disregard for the violence that ensued inside churches rightfully angered millions of followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Holy Synod of the Church declared a three-day fasting and prayer, which it warned would be followed by a mass rally inside and outside Ethiopia if the government did not answer their demands.

The Holy Synod’s demands were mainly to respect religious freedom and halt the ongoing violence against the Church’s believers by government agencies. Eventually, via interlocutors, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached the Holy Synod. It seemed the Prime Minister yielded to the needs of the Church. Subsequently, the Holy Synod announced the postponement of the highly anticipated rallies. 

Given the tense situation, many breathed a sigh of relief and thought the government finally respected the long-held legal principle of separation of church and state. However, within hours, news emerged that a massive arrest campaign was underway in many parts of the Oromia region and the capital Addis Ababa. 

To make matters worse, the government announced the closure of most major roads for vehicles and pedestrians alike on Sunday morning from 5 am to 10 am local time, which intentionally coincided with the prayer times of Ethiopian Orthodox believers. 

Many Churchgoers were forced to return to their homes by the police. The situation was dire in the Oromia region. The police arrested priests, deacons, and other prominent ministers of various local churches and blocked people from entering the churches. As a result, the doors of many Ethiopian Orthodox Churches were shut for the first time in Ethiopian history. Ethiopian mass (Kidase) was not heard on February 11, 2023; a tradition held every Sunday for centuries. 

I was triggered to write this piece after reading the false, malicious accusations made against the people arrested during this crackdown. I feel deeply saddened to see that Ethiopia’s legal profession is still shamefully lacking in the principles of law and justice. 

In principle, a lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, and a lawyer should not use the rules and procedures for illegitimate purposes to harass and intimidate others. However, such a principle is flagrantly disregarded by the Ethiopian legal system, and there seems no way we will be out of this vicious circle anytime soon. The prosecutors alleged in their pleadings that the suspects had used “illegal social media apps, practiced their religion against the dogma of their faith, etc.” There is no “illegal social media app” in Ethiopia, and whether one practices their religion against the principle of the faith is up to that religion, not the government.

These charges are frivolous and have no basis in law. Thus, the government lawyers are not candor to the judiciary and bring meritless charges to harass law-abiding citizens. One day, the Ethiopian legal system will grow a backbone, and my fellow lawyers will be guided by personal conscience and the approbation of their professional peers. Until then, the malicious prosecution continues, and justice will continue to be left to the whim of the powerful.

Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of 


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