Ethiopia: Islamists Receive Life Sentences For Church Attacks

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – In a snap ruling that surprised local Christians, an Ethiopian court has sentenced three Muslim men to life imprisonment for a deadly machete attack on two churches last March.

At the initial hearing on March 26, the West Arsi Zone Higher Court handed down four sentences – life in prison for three attackers, and a three-month suspended sentence for an accomplice – for the March 2 assault in south Ethiopia that killed one and injured 17. The victims’ families said they had been told the hearing would take place on April 25 and only learned of the sentencing after their right to appeal had expired.

“Usually, cases will take months and years to pass such a sentence, but this one was dramatically ended so fast and secretly,” said one observer in Addis Ababa.

Christians from Nensebo Chebi village, 240 miles south of Addis Ababa, overcame bureaucratic red-tape to appeal the verdict out of concern over the “secretive” way the case had been handled.

Of another 17 people initially arrested for the attack in the Muslim-majority area, six remain in prison while the rest have reportedly been set free. Local Christians said they have been refused information regarding whether these people will be tried.

Three local Muslim officials arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack are now back in their government positions even as a separate investigation against them continues, local Christians said.

“The appeal’s objective is to get the attention of higher officials,” said the observer. “The church members are afraid that if it is not seriously handled, then in the near future it can be taken to a [local] government body to give parole or pardon for the [attackers].”

The court in Shashemene city handed life sentences to the three Muslims at the March 26 hearing for the attack in Nensebo Chebi. Gemeda Beriso, 20, Kedir Beriso, 20, and Keyrudin Muhammad, 19, were convicted of “deliberate brutal killing.”

Judges Ashenafi Tesfay, Haji Shalo and Bejiga Kefeni found a fourth Muslim man guilty of cooperating with the criminals. Hajji Kuma Ngero was given a suspended three-month jail sentence based on his need to remain free to care for his 12 children, the verdict noted. Ngero will only serve time if convicted of another crime within the next two years.

During the Sunday morning attack on March 2, men wielding knives and machetes simultaneously broke into two churches, half an hour’s walk apart from each other, and began hacking worshippers. One man died instantly from a machete blow to his neck while two others lost hands, and another 15 people sustained wounds on their necks, legs, arms, shoulders and backs.

The four men convicted of the crime reportedly confessed while in police custody to attacking the Kale Hiwot and Birhane Wongel Baptist churches. Survivors said that during the attack the assailants cried, “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “Allah is greater.”

Having only learned of the verdict on April 13, church leaders faced a number of irregularities in their attempts to appeal, local sources said.

The Christians immediately traveled to Shashemene, where court officials appeared unaware that a ruling had taken place. The court registrar, who typically files all court documents, did not have a copy of the verdict. It was eventually found in the hands of the state prosecutor.

“What we have seen in the court office tells us that there was a deliberate action to stop us from appealing and taking it to the highest level for better treatment,” a local Christian said.

The Christians also faced difficulties appealing the case to a higher court in Addis Ababa because the 15-day period for making an initial complaint had passed. But after citing extenuating circumstances, including the Christians having been unaware of the hearing and having been preoccupied with caring for the wounded, an Addis Ababa prosecutor accepted the appeal.

Official Involvement in Attack

Christian sources have named three local Muslim officials they believe instigated the attack.

Hussein Beriso, house speaker of the Nensebo District Council, forced church members at gunpoint to bury the murdered victim, Tula Mosisa, just hours after the attack, Christian sources from the area said. After Christian leaders protested, security forces exhumed the body and sent it to Awasa for an autopsy.

Local Christians have also accused Beriso of buying and distributing machetes for men involved in the church attacks. They said that Beriso had made public comments against Christians in February, warning the village’s Muslims to resist any attempts to convince them to leave Islam.

Located in the predominantly Muslim Oromiya state, both Baptist churches have members who converted from Islam to Christianity.

Christian sources also named Nensebo district militia leaders Zerihun Tilahun and Sheik Kedir as having instigated the violence.

A Christian district politician who attempted to expose the role of these three men in the attacks has been removed from his position, a local source said. Getahun Bekele, Nensebo district deputy administrator, was fired in May ostensibly for being unable to “mobilize the public for development endeavors,” the source said. But Christians suspect the real motivation for his dismissal was his attempt to report Hussein Beriso’s involvement in the church attack to his superiors.

“In the meeting he exposed his colleagues for their failure to fulfill their duties to prevent the March 2 incident,” one Christian said. “We feel [he] is deposed just because he spoke in favor of us.”

Federal Police spokesman Cmdr. Demsash Hailu declined to comment regarding the investigation against the three local officials suspected of involvement in the attack.