Ethiopia is “highly likely” to charge another 121 Oromo rebels with terrorist offences after 14 people were sentenced yesterday over their involvement in a plot to bomb an African Union summit, a government spokesman said.
The Supreme Court yesterday jailed four of the accused for life, while six received 25-year prison terms, one got 14 years and three others were incarcerated for nine years, State Minister of Communications Shimeles Kemal said in a phone interview from Addis Ababa, the capital. All 14 were convicted of involvement in a plot to set off bombs at the AU’s headquarters in the city during a summit in January.
“All of the defendants were members of the Oromo Liberation Front,” Shimeles said yesterday. “Some of them were assigned to go to Eritrea for the purpose of carrying out the operation to terrorize the summit as well as demolishing hotels and entertainment sites.”
Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The OLF has waged a 38-year campaign for autonomy in Oromia, the biggest of Ethiopia’s nine federal states. Cases are still being put together against 121 OLF fighters arrested in March, some of whom were trained by the Eritrean government, Shimeles said.
“It’s highly likely they may be charged in accordance with the anti-terrorism proclamation,” he said.
In April, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said it will back Eritrean rebels trying to overthrow the government of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki unless that country changes its policies of regional destabilization. Eritrea’s ambassador to the AU, Girma Asmerom, denied the charge and said the stance was “pure aggression and a declaration of war.”
The two countries fought a 1998-2000 border war in which an estimated 70,000 people were killed, according to International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based advocacy organization.
The OLF denied its forces had anything to do with a plot to attack the AU summit and said its fighters are trained in Oromia, not in Eritrea.
“The OLF did not and will not plan to bomb the AU headquarters,” Beyan H. Asoba, spokesman for the rebel group, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “As a matter of policy, the OLF does not target civilian populations and property in its military operations.”
In March, Oromo opposition parties said that 69 of their activists or sympathizers had been arrested by the government that month.
“Generally the government’s strategy is the marginalization of the opposition using the anti-terrorism law. They use it against the opposition whether they are legal like us or operating outside the legal framework,” Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo People’s Congress, said in a phone interview from Addis Ababa yesterday. “For sure I know the members have nothing to do with Eritrea or illegal activities.”
The mobile phone of Ambassador Girma was switched off when Bloomberg called seeking comment.