The entrance to the Federal Supreme Court in Addis Ababa, June 2016

UPDATE [3 May 2017] – Three Ethiopians do not now have to pay compensation for a church which, in January, they were acquitted of charges of destroying.

Tibebu Mekuria, Dawit Jemberu, and Belete Tilahun were freed on 18 January after a Supreme Court judge acquitted them on 13 January.

The three had been falsely convicted and imprisoned for burning down an Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) building. Although witnesses said the men were not near the building at the time of the fire and the single prosecution witness gave inconsistent testimony, a judge found all three guilty on 28 October, 2014, with sentences of up to nine years in prison each.

They were finally acquitted after almost three years of delays, but have only now been released from a separate court order made in July 2016 to pay for damages to the church.

Sources in Ethiopia report that the court yesterday, May 2, dropped the compensation charges, cancelling the government’s hold on Tilahun’s property and bank account. “All three are extremely relieved over this outcome”, World Watch Monitor was told.

PREVIOUS REPORT [2 February 2017] –

Three men, falsely convicted and imprisoned for burning down an Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) building in the rural community of Gulema Iyesus in May 2014, have been acquitted and freed. The area is about 275km north of the capital, Addis Ababa.

Despite their acquittal, they do however still face a compensation order given by a judge in July 2016 – even though they were appealing their conviction – to pay for the damages to the church. These were valued at more than 1.2 million Ethiopian Birr (worth over US$40,000 at the time of the sentence). Mekuria and Jemberu are both single and have no property, but Tilahun, who is married and a father of three, risks losing his property.

The men appeared in court in Debiremarkos, north of Addis Ababa, on 25 January to request the compensation order to be cancelled, but the judge said he needed time to go through the file and understand how the verdict was reached. Their next court appearance is due on 20 February.

The release follows almost three years of flawed court proceedings and delays. Mekuria and Jemberu, both Protestant evangelists, were arrested a month after the Ethiopian Orthodox Church building burned down, accused of starting the fire. Police then also arrested Tilahun, also a Protestant Christian and small kiosk owner, who was accused of funding the attack.

Although witnesses said the men were not near the building at the time of the fire and the single prosecution witness gave inconsistent testimony, the judge found all three guilty on 28 October, 2014, with sentences of up to nine years in prison each.

In November 2014 another judge upheld the ruling, prompting the men’s lawyer to appeal to the Regional State Supreme Court in the Amhara state capital of Bahirdar. That appeal was rejected. A final appeal, to the Federal Supreme Court in Addis Ababa, first to be heard in June 2015, had been postponed at least eight times since then, including from 10-13 January this year; the judge continually claimed he had inadequate time to look at the case.

The men have been held in Debiremarkos prison, notorious as a prison where opponents of the former Communist Ethiopian government were tortured and killed.

During the delays, Tilahun’s father died of an unknown cause in May 2016. Local contacts told World Watch Monitor at the time: “It was traumatic for [Belete] in jail. The father was deeply saddened to see his son sentenced back in 2015. He was depressed after attending hearing after hearing. When the judge at the higher court upheld the ruling by the lower court, he was heard saying, ‘May the God of truth vindicate your name’, with deep frustration. A devoted EOC follower, he was not convinced about the accusations against his son. For Belete it’s always been very concerning to see his father tirelessly attending all the hearings at such an old age.”