During the past few days, news has reached me that Omot Agwa, a longtime friend and participant in our film, Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas, will be charged by the Ethiopian government under the anti-terrorism law for attending a workshop on food security.
If convicted, Omot faces between twenty years and life in prison.
Omot has devoted his life to preserving the national park and working for the rights of the indigenous Anuak people in the western region of Gambella. In 2014, Omot acted as translator for the World Bank’s internal investigation into its own violations of the bank’s policies in Gambella.
This February, Omot told me that security officers had been approaching him and that he feared for his safety. On March 15th, those fears were realized: Omot and six others were on their way to Nairobi to attend a workshop on food security organized by an indigenous rights group, with the support of two reputed international organizations, Bread for All and GRAIN, based in Switzerland and Spain.
After the arrest Omot has been held in solitary confinement for three weeks in the notorious Maekelawi prison where Human Rights Watch has documented torture. When Omot at last was permitted limited access to his family, he did appear in very poor health.
Now after nearly six months of detainment, the authorities are charging Omot and the two local activists Ashinie Astin and Jamal Oumar Hojele under the anti-terrorism law. The charges brought against the three focus on their participation in the food security workshop in Nairobi, which in the charge is referred to as a “terrorist group meeting.”
This is of course an absurd charge, symptomatic of the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia. During our years of filming, we have often experienced how the Ethiopian government has increasingly cracked down on civil society, independent activists and media representatives, creating a climate of silence and fear. This repression had already affected another one of our film participants; in 2012, the journalist Argaw Ashine had to flee the country to avoid being arrested.
So far, the World Bank and its shareholders, the United States and the EU, have not come forward to defend Omot and the others against these outrageous charges. This silence saddens us, as it sends a chilling message to all those who dare to stand up for indigenous rights, the environment and aid accountability.
For information on the current situation in Ethiopia, see Human Right Watch’s reporting: http://www.hrw.org/africa/ethiopia