By Peter Heinlein | VOA
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — An Ethiopian judge has again denied bail for 40 suspects jailed last month in connection with an alleged plot to destabilize the country. The suspects were ordered held for another two weeks while prosecutors decide what to charge them with.
Weeping relatives stood outside an Addis Ababa courthouse Monday hoping for a glimpse of loved ones arrested April 24 in what officials originally called a roundup of suspected coup plotters.
Government spokesmen later backed away from the coup plot theory, saying the conspiracy was only aimed at assassinating government leaders and bombing strategic installations. The judge Monday gave prosecutors two more weeks to decide what the charges will be.
The crowd outside the courthouse watched anxiously as one by one, 19 pickup trucks, each with a canvas-covered bed, backed up to a courtroom door and, out of the view of onlookers, deposited handcuffed defendants for a brief appearance before a judge.
Occasionally, a face would appear for a few seconds at a screened hole in the canvas, or a cuffed hand could be seen waving. But for the most part, the onlookers hopes of sighting a jailed relative were dashed.
People in the crowd all asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. Many, like a young woman who allowed her voice to be recorded in Amharic, charged her loved one’s rights had been violated because prison visits by family members and attorneys had been prohibited.
She says, ‘we went to visit, but have not been able to see our relatives.’ She said relatives had only been allowed to drop off food at the gate and leave.
Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal, a former prosecutor, denied any defendants’ rights had been violated. He told VOA no requests for prison visits had been received.
“What I have learned is since no one asked investigators or people in charge there, they were not able to facilitate this because they were not asked to do so,” said Shimelis Kemal.
Human rights activists and an attorney with ties to the case, questioned the constitutionality of holding prisoners for up to six weeks without charge or possibility of bail.
Spokesman Shimelis, however, said the law does not place any limit on length of detention.
“Look, this is a pre-trial detention, the ethiopian criminal code clearly defines the conditions made by detaining authorities when a person is detained before trial. this is a normal procedure,” he said. “The law does not set out a time limit for remand. Only that one can be remanded up to 14 days, and there is no time limit for how many remands should the court shall grant to police. It doesn’t say anything.”
At least 30 of the defendants are known to be current or former army officers. Of the few who have been identified, one is an active duty army general accused of being head of the military wing of the conspiracy, and another is an opposition political figure said to be leader of the civilian wing.
All are alleged to be members of a ‘terror cell’ officials say is headed by former opposition leader Berhanu Nega. Berhanu was elected mayor of Addis in the disputed 2005 election, but was among those politicians arrested during post-election protests, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.
After the group was pardoned, Berhanu went to the United States, where he teaches economics at a university in the state of Pennsylvania.