Nine-year jail term for human rights defender

Oakland Institute | 28 April 2016
Nine-year jail term for human rights defender
Ethiopian Court Punishes Indigenous Leader Okello Akway Ochalla for Speaking Out
Oakland, CA—On Wednesday April 27th, an Ethiopian court sentenced indigenous leader and land rights activist Okello Akway Ochalla to nine years in prison. Mr. Okello is a Norwegian citizen who was kidnapped in South Sudan and unlawfully renditioned to Ethiopia in March 2014. His crime: speaking to international media including the BBC and the Voice of America about the 2003 massacre and the ongoing plight of the people of Gambella.
In 2003, Mr. Okello was Governor of the Gambella region of Ethiopia when a massacre of indigenous Anuak people took place at the hands of the Ethiopian Security Forces. An Anuak himself, Mr. Okello fled Ethiopia and eventually sought asylum in Norway. In the ensuing years, he continued to advocate for justice and the rights of the Anuaks. Because of this activism, he was branded a terrorist and arrested in 2014.
Earlier this month, after a lengthy trial in which the primary evidence against Mr. Okello was a self-confession signed under torture, his charges were lessened from terrorism to criminal charges. Despite this small glimmer of hope, we are appalled by the court’s sentence.
To say that this sentence is an injustice is an understatement. From the moment Mr. Okello was unlawfully renditioned and forcibly taken to Ethiopia in 2014, the courts and criminal system have worked to break him. He has been subjected to torture and solitary confinement, and his lawyers report that, unsurprisingly, this has affected his mental health. His family—based in the US and Norway—has likewise been devastated by this news, as they go on without a father, brother, and husband in their lives.
Yesterday’s verdict demonstrates the ongoing repression by the Ethiopian regime against marginalized communities across the country. This repression has threatened the stability of the whole country, as Anuaks, Oromos, Ogadens, Ethiopian Muslims, and others face ongoing persecution at the hands of the government. The verdict is a major setback for peace and stability in the Gambella region, and for justice in Ethiopia as a whole.
In the two years since Mr. Okello was arrested, the United States has approved new World Bank funding to Ethiopia, signed a new security agreement with the country, and maintained its status as Ethiopia’s single largest bilateral donor. Given these roles, the United States has a responsibility to its taxpayers to ensure that basic human rights and rule of law are upheld in Ethiopia.
We call on the United States government to take a stand and demand that the Ethiopian government grant amnesty to land rights activist Okello Akway Ochalla as it has done recently with other political prisoners.

The large Saudi Star farm in Gambella. Its owners want to grow 140,000 tonnes of rice by 2018 (Photo: Charlie Bibby/FT)
Financial Times | 27 April 2016

by Tom Burgis
An Ethiopian court has handed down a nine-year jail sentence to a leading dissident from the restive region where the government has leased vast tracts of land to foreign investors.
Okello Akway Ochalla had been in exile for a decade when he was seized by South Sudanese security agents in a hotel in that country’s capital two years ago during a trip to organise opposition to the Ethiopian government. He was passed to Ethiopian agents and flown to Addis Ababa. There he was charged with plotting against the state. He was convicted this month and sentenced on Wednesday, his supporters told the Financial Times.
The government calls Mr Okello a terrorist, claiming that he conspired with armed groups plotting attacks. His supporters maintain that he is the latest victim of the authoritarian regime’s determination to crush its opponents.
“This does not stop dissent, it creates it,” said Anuradha Mittal, a land rights activist at the US-based Oakland Institute, who has taken up Mr Okello’s cause.

Mr Okello was serving as governor of the marginalised Gambella region in 2003 when tensions between locals, including his fellow Anuak, and more pro-government migrants from the highlands boiled over. Some 400 Anuak people and other locals were massacred; many more fled. According to human rights groups, the armed forces joined in the slaughter.
Mr Okello escaped and reached Norway, where he was granted asylum. Over the years since, his homeland has become a frontier in a global rush to invest in land. A food price shock in 2007 spurred interest in leasing land as a means to secure supplies of food. Then the financial crisis drew attention to land as an asset immune to the vagaries of stocks and bonds. Last year, 17 agriculture or farmland funds raised $3.9bn, up from the $500m raised by five funds in 2009, according to Preqin, a data provider.

Gambella has a blighted history but its soils are rich. The lowland region is the focus of the Ethiopian government’s drive to boost exports through land investment. Progress has been faltering. An attempt by Karuturi Global of Bangalore to cultivate 100,000 hectares descended into acrimony over unmet promises. The government sent notice to the company in December that its lease had been terminated.

The one large project to have made headway is a 14,000 hectare Saudi Star rice farm, owned by the Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi. That venture, conceived with rice-hungry Saudis across the Red Sea in mind, reaped its first harvest in November. It is training local farmhands as part of efforts to avoid a repeat of a 2012 attack by unidentified gunmen — a warning that the new landlords have stirred up old grievances in a downtrodden region.

The Ethiopian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr Okello’s sentence. He has 30 days to appeal, Ms Mittal said.

Ethiopia’s government has taken pride in posting some of the Africa’s most impressive growth figures but critics say the cost is growing repression, drawing comparisons with China.

Journalists, bloggers and other critics have been detained under a contentious counter-terrorism law. They include Pastor Omot Agwa, who worked as a translator for a World Bank inspection team that probed alleged forced evictions in Gambella. The pastor was arrested last year and is awaiting trial.
Mr Okello was originally charged under the terrorism act but his eventual conviction was for charges under different legislation banning acts that imperil the state, Ms Mittal said.
Mr Okello’s son, Obok, lives in Washington and has lobbied the US authorities to intervene on his father’s behalf. Speaking last month before the verdict, a White House official told the FT that the US “will continue to monitor his case and engage the government of Ethiopia as appropriate”.

Norway, where Mr Okello has citizenship, has also been monitoring the case but says its efforts to do so have at times been frustrated by the Ethiopian authorities.
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