#FreeOmot: Campaign to Free Three Ethiopian Land, Food & Human Rights Defenders
Ethiopian authorities have charged three local land, food, and human rights defenders with terrorism after they attempted to travel to a food security workshop in Kenya. The move is part of the Ethiopian government’s effort to silence voices perceived as critical of its land grabbing agenda and repression of indigenous peoples.
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About the case:
Omot Agwa Okwoy and his fellow human rights defenders Ashinie Astin and Jamal Oumar Hojele were arrested on March 15, 2015 for trying to attend a food security workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, organized by Anywaa Survival Organization (ASO) with support from the international organizations Bread for All and GRAIN. The three activists were held without charge for over five months before being charged on September 7, 2015 under a draconian anti-terrorism law—alleging that the workshop was linked to terrorist activities. All three detainees were recently moved to Kalinto prison, on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, after spending several months at Maekelawi police station, where Omot was held in solitary confinement for three weeks. Human Rights Watch has documented torture and other ill treatment at Maekelawi. Both Jamal and Omot are reportedly in poor health.
About the detainees:
Omot Agwa Okwoy is a pastor at the evangelical Mekane Yesus church in Ethiopia’s Gambella region. Pastor Omot was also an interpreter for the World Bank Inspection Panel during its 2014 investigation of a complaint by Anuak indigenous people alleging widespread forced displacement and other serious human rights violations in relation to a World Bank project in Gambela. Before being arrested, Omot was filmed as part of a forthcoming documentary film about land grabbing in Ethiopia (“Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas” WG Films, 2016). In the film, Omot discusses his fear of being detained and tortured because of his activism to protect indigenous rights in his home country. See a clip from the film here. Omot now faces between 20 years and life in prison if convicted.
Jamal Oumar Hojele works for the Assosa Environmental Protection Association in defense of the environment and the rights of those who live in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. Jamal Oumar is accused of being a participant of a “terrorist group” and of organizing recruits to attend the Nairobi workshop. Ashinie Astin is a member of Majangier, an ethnic indigenous minority from the Gambela region. He has been a strong voice advocating for the rights of this community, especially in relation to land rights. Ashinie is accused of participating in terrorist activities, including preparing a research document entitled “Deforestation, dispossession and displacement of Gambela in general and Majang people in particular.”
Why does this case matter?
Ethiopia is emblematic of a global wave of land grabbing led by governments, investors, and financial institutions that is violating human rights, undermining food sovereignty, and worsening climate change. Activists like Omot, Jamal, and Ashinie dare to stand up for and with vulnerable communities on the front lines of this assault. Their work on the following issues is invaluable to building a sustainable, healthy, and resilient planet.
Following the global food and financial crisis of 2007-2008, Ethiopia decided to take advantage of the new surge in farmland investment by declaring millions of hectares of land “unutilized” and making them available for long-term lease to domestic and foreign investors. Most of the lands targeted for investment are remote, yet highly fertile, areas such as the Southwestern province of Gambela, which is the ancestral homeland of the Majang and Anywaa (also known as Anuak) indigenous people. At least one million hectares (roughly 2.5 million acres) have been leased to investors in Gambela, although many now lie barren as investors, eager to make a quick profit, grabbed the lands without having the knowledge or capital to develop the farms.
Anuak indigenous people have always had close ties to their environment, but have been marginalized by the government for many years. They sustain themselves mainly through small-scale farming, hunting, and fishing. Beginning in 2010, the Ethiopian government launched a “villagization” program in Gambela and other regions—dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land and settling them into new villages, often to make room for domestic and foreign land investments. While the government claims the program is voluntary, local people report intimidation, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in military custody, rape, and extra-judicial killing. A complaint submitted to the World Bank Inspection Panel prepared by the Anuak indigenous people, with support from Inclusive Development International, implicates the World Bank in grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian government in its Bank-financed villagization program.
The large-scale industrial agriculture that the government would like to see in Gambela and other parts of Ethiopia will undermine peasant and indigenous livelihoods, robbing communities of their ability to feed themselves. Furthermore, these projects threaten to decimate water supplies and the fertility of the soils, as has already occurred in other parts of Ethiopia. One of the reasons why Ethiopia suffers from recurrent famines is because of such top-down projects in the past that did not consider long-term soil fertility. Gambela is already seeing a rise in temperatures due to climate change, which—when combined with widespread deforestation largely driven by new land investments—is leading to widespread soil erosion. The large-scale, export-oriented agricultural projects being introduced in Ethiopia are a recipe for famine.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Since 2011, Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law has been used to prosecute journalists, bloggers, opposition politicians, and peaceful protesters. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented numerous incidents in which individuals critical of Ethiopia’s development policies have been detained and harassed, and often mistreated in detention. Journalists have been harassed for writing articles critical of the country’s development policy.
Please help support Omot, Ashinie, Jamal, and their families as human rights organizations work to pressure for their release.
How you can help:
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