NAIROBI, Kenya (Compass Direct News) – Prosecutors and police are trying to concoct a terrorism case against an Ethiopian convert from Islam who has been jailed since May without formal charges, Christian leaders said.
Bashir Musa Ahmed, a 39-year-old Ethiopian national, was arrested on May 23 when police found him in possession of eight Bibles in Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia's Somali Region Zone Five, a predominantly Muslim area in eastern Ethiopia. Zonal police arrested him after he was accused of providing Muslims with the Somali-language Bibles, sources said, though Ethiopia's constitution protects such activity.
A state official joined Christian leaders in stating that Islamist interests have kept Ahmed in jail in spite of the state's failure to find any legitimate charge against him. Initially the Christian was arrested for "malicious" distribution of a version of the Bible that is widely available in Ethiopia and is commonly used by Somali Christians inside and outside of the country.
Unable to mount a case rooted in Islamist accusations with no legal bases, authorities have turned toward the terrorism charge as a new tactic, Christian leaders said. Police have submitted the terrorism charge to prosecutors, prompting the prosecutors last month to ask police to find some evidence for the accusation, according to a church leader.
"Police have submitted their investigation results to the prosecutor's office accusing Bashir of terrorism," said the church leader. "We heard that the prosecutors asked police to solidify their accusations with evidences of Bashir's connections [to a terrorist group, and to specify] which terrorist group. Prosecutors seem to feel they need to have some evidence to charge him with terrorism."
Church leaders said they have received reports of authorities beating Bashir in jail.
"We repeatedly asked prison officials to take him to the hospital, and they are not willing to do so," said the church leader. "We are only allowed to talk to him for few minutes in the presence of onlookers. We take food for him, and we don't know whether it reaches him or not."
The church leader said law enforcement officials are receiving pressure from tribal and Islamic religious leaders.
"We have visited a number of officials in the region – the regional state president, the chairman of security forces and others, and they openly told us that they don't want to dismay the public by releasing Bashir," he said. "Some of the officials were saying to us that it is not right to translate the Bible into the regional state language and cultural context."
A Christian worker in Addis Ababa said a regional state official of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front who has close ties with authorities said that Ahmed was about to be released at one point, as prosecutors were unable to find any chargeable offense against him.
"I was almost sure he would be released within days," at least on bail, the official told the Christian worker, but "other issues came into play to influence the turn of events."
The official recalled participating in meetings in which regional state officials brought together all tribal and religious leaders in Somali state, he said.
"I heard the regional state leaders say that they are directly handling Ahmed's case to protect the religion and culture of Somalis," he said. "It was enough for me to realize that Ahmed's case involved a different agenda."
The Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the official told the Christian worker.
"This is not the communist regime's time," he said. "Everyone has the right to follow and practice the religion of his choice. Ahmed shouldn't be in jail for a single day. I suspect that the regional leaders are using Ahmed's case for other purposes."
Ethiopia's constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Ethiopia's population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up another 10 percent, and about 45 percent of the country's people are Sunni Muslim, according to the report.
Held without a court appearance for several months, Ahmed has been repeatedly denied bail as police continued to ask the court for more time to carry out investigations. At one hearing, sources said, a judge in Dire Dawa asked what crime Ahmed had committed; the prosecutor responded that Ahmed was trying to perpetuate a religious clash in the region.
Prosecutors have repeatedly opposed the defendant's pleas for bail with the argument that the case is a "very high sensitive matter with a potential to instigate religious instability."
"Ahmed's case is still pending and seems beyond legal proceedings," said the Christian worker. "We have tried every possible way, and all didn't work."
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Bordering lawless Somalia, Ethiopia's Somali state sees sporadic instability in various areas, and sources said federal officials appear reluctant to take action that could diminish trust with tribal and religious leaders.
An Ethiopian national, Ahmed is known as a bold preacher of Christianity and is credited with opening discussion of the two faiths between Christian and Muslim leaders. He is well-known in the area as a scholar of Islam.
The Christian worker said he has spoken to the speaker of the House of Federation in Addis Ababa, asking that he intervene; he has also brought the matter to the attention of the national security adviser to the prime minister. The adviser said he was unhappy with the handling of Ahmed's case and promised to come back with some answers within a week.
"This one too just disappeared," the Christian worker said. "It seems to me that we are only left with the exceptional intervention from God."
He said a ministry representative in the region has visited the police commander in Somali state to ask why Ahmed has been kept so long without trial. The commander was not responsive, he said.
"When he was challenged that it was Ahmed's constitutional right to get formal court proceedings, the commander abruptly responded that the constitution was second to his Islamic faith," the worker said. He added that state authorities, unlike in other areas, are acting according to their personal will rather than the law.
A church leader following the case in Jijiga said that even after many months in prison, Ahmed was fervently telling about faith in Christ to other inmates. "He is zealous to reach his tribe's men," said the church leader.
A conviction on terrorism charges would bring him a harsh sentence, he said.
"Bashir has an indefinite and uncertain future," he said. "Pray for him."