As a lawyer and an advocate for universal human rights, I am happy to see political leaders and journalists get released from prison, or have their charges dropped. It is a commendable way for stepping towards the democratisation of Ethiopia.
Along with this admirable initiative, the current administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has also been able to secure the release of several Ethiopians from Sudanese and Saudi Arabian prisons.
But the release of individuals charged with corruption leaves a sour taste and raises questions about the state of the country’s judicial system.
Back in 2013, the Federal Ethics & Anti-Corruption Commission made headlines for its high profile charges against top officials of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA) and several business people.
Personally, the cases were shocking as I had professionally known these officials as a journalist fresh from law school. Their imprisonment was said to relate to such offences as allowing goods to pass through customs uninspected, tax evasion and graft.
The abrupt dismissal of charges casts light over the state of the justice system, and the level of independence it exercises. In a statement made on May 26, 2018, the Office of the Attorney General revealed that corruption and terrorism charges against 137 defendants, 31 individual and four companies have been dropped.
What has just transpired requires a closer investigation and contemplation. It should require us to pay closer attention to patterns that can make an already vulnerable judiciary system even weaker.
The executive branch of government has shown, time and time again, that it holds sway over the judiciary. This can also be seen in the courts’ inability to make the executive part of government abide by its rulings.
This was made most evident in a summons that the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn ignored – a Federal Court case, that has since been dropped and involved Bekele Girba et al. Hailemariam’s excuse was that he was too busy to obey the summons.
Internal and external interference can make judges unable to be fair, to whoever that may be. And in situations where the interests of powerful individuals are at stake, interferences are likely in any country. Such circumstances are slowly improving when it comes to ordinary court cases, but the same can hardly be said of high profile cases where politics takes centre stage.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Conduct layout principles such as appointment of judges, security of their tenure, financial security, promotion, accountability, freedom of expression and association, training and education as well as the duty to ensure fair court proceedings. Ethiopia’s supreme law of the land, the Constitution, also specifies the importance of the independence of the judiciary.
An independent judiciary, as an organ of the government, is established by the Ethiopian constitution itself. The supreme law further asserts that all levels of courts should be free from any interference, influence of any governmental body and government officials.
However, the basis for this separation of power is not yet fully practised. Accountability and independence are not institutionalised, and courts are not immune from official influences. There are allegations of regional administrators in states directly interfering with the justice system. There are also allegations of judicial orders being reversed by the executive agencies.
Such tensions between the executive and the judiciary have severely undermined the independence of the latter. The resistance of Judges to attempts of undue influences has yet to be universalised in Ethiopia.
Courts play fundamental roles in the protection of justice, the rule of law and upholding human rights. It is the essential institution for checks-and-balances on the other branches of government. They ensure that the laws of the legislative and the conduct of the executive comply with the nation’s and international laws.
Courts guarantee that victims obtain fair justice. Ideally, while wrongdoers are brought to justice, anyone suspected of a criminal offence receives a fair and free trial any government interference.
The existence of independent and impartial courts is at the heart of the judicial system that guarantees justice in full conformity with the facts and the law, and that it is applied in each and every case. If judges cannot freely assess the facts of cases and firmly apply the law, the justice system becomes compromised.
The principle of independence of judges is not established for the personal benefits of the judges themselves. Instead, it is created to protect people against the abuses of power. An efficient, equitable and independent judiciary is an essential and non-negotiable prerequisite for justice in Ethiopia to prevail.
If people lose trust in the justice system, they may be driven to take the law into their own hands, resulting in the further weakening of the administration and the application of justice. It is vital for the country to establish and maintain this principle of judicial independence to protect and preserve a balance of power in the government and the judiciary.
Unless judges are allowed to exercise their mandates fully, there is a serious risk that a culture of impunity will take root.
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