Victory for Federal Government Criminal investigation is an area prone to abuse of power in the Ethiopian criminal justice system. In particular, the law regulating bail and the duration of police investigation is susceptible to abuse. While arrested or detained persons have constitutional right for their criminal investigation to be completed without unnecessary delay, the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr. Pro. C.) does not provide a hard and fast rule on the period of criminal investigation. Furthermore, in a constitutionally questionable way, under the Cr. Pro. C. some offenses (offenses that involve loss of life and those which are punishable for fifteen years) are non-bailable.
Hachalu’s assassination and the resulting violence have become a turning point in the government’s approach to deal with such cases. The government has resorted to rule of law-based response. Thousands of citizens including leaders of several political parties have been detained pending criminal investigation.
While the government’s move to uphold rule of law and ensure accountability is commendable, maximum care should be taken to safeguard citizens against miscarriage of justice in the name of law enforcement. Criminal justice is not only about prosecuting criminals. It is also about protecting them. And the role of the court in this regard is invaluable. Article 13 of the FDRE Constitution requires all organs of government to respect and enforce human rights including the rights of persons arrested. The court would have a heightened responsibility to safeguard rights of suspects at a time when the government sees the law enforcement as prime means to address the crisis.
The constitution has established the court of law as independent institution to be guided only by rule of law. However, in the recent past the court, far from being independent, had been of the government’s unsubstantiated criminal charges in many politically sensitive criminal cases. In particular, their role in the use of counter-terrorism prosecution as a tool to silence dissenting views – what Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed has as an act of state terrorism- was significant. It was in this context that following her appointment as the president of the Federal Supreme Court in 2018, Meaza Ashenafi on several occasions to restore public trust in the justice system. As such, the present-day court should distance itself from its past practices if it has to truly discharge their constitutional responsibilities.
However, some of the detainees have already expressed and their fear of a potential misuse of power to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commissioner, who has voiced concern that rights of the detainees have not been fully respected, including the rights of family members to know the whereabouts of their detained relatives. Jawar Mohammed and his lawyers have already the government for its political intervention in the ongoing criminal investigation. The court has explicitly assured them that it is not a government tool to be used for political purposes. This guarantee should be demonstrated through actual rulings and decisions.