The Muslim community in Ethiopia continued with its demands for the release of their jailed colleagues, ahead of new leadership polls for the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) next month.
More than 10 members of a "protest organising committee" in Addis Ababa were arrested by police last July following weeks of protest against the current EIASC leadership, which the Muslim community claims does not represent them. They also claim that the council has allowed government interference in religious affairs.
The jailed Muslim "protest organising committee" members were expected to appear before the Ethiopian Federal court on September 14, but their appearance was delayed due to protests by relatives and supporters at the court. They were later arraigned before the court on Tuesday, September 18 without prior notice.
During court proceedings, the prosecutor asked for another 28 days to undertake "more investigations" into the detained Muslim protestors. Arguing that their case is "serious and needs ample time", the prosecutor told the court that "a lot of evidence, including both Arabic and English language messages exchanged between the detainees and other extremists outside the country, had been gathered." The police, according to the prosecutor, needed time to translate the messages.
Aside from accusing the detainees of undertaking activities to make Ethiopia a "Muslim nation", police also told the court that more people behind the protests were being sought.
Local analysts say the Ethiopian government has repeatedly said that extremists have been using religion as a cover for their "hidden agenda", promoting extremism in Ethiopia. But the protestors have rejected the accusations saying that government is interfering in their religious affairs. "We don't have any agenda. We are demanding to have our own elected leadership at the council in a free election," said Munir Tofik, who is opposed to the EIASC.
So far, we have not seen anything illegal. None
Tofik said the Muslim communities reject the idea of "any imported doctrine being preached at mosques". Muslims have accused the government of promoting an alien branch of Islam, the Al Ahbash sect, which they believe to be "avowedly political and has numerous adherents in the United States."
According to recent population census, around 60 percent of the estimated 80 million Ethiopians are Christian and 30 percent Muslim, mostly of the moderate Sufi tradition. But analysts have indicated that the Horn of Africa country is concerned about the influence of more extreme forms of Islam. And to counter these other Islamist influences, the government has actively promoted the Al Ahbash sect of Islam, which is mainly based on the teachings of an Ethiopian scholar who lived in exile in Lebanon.
The government on its part denies promoting Al Ahbash, but says it is determined to prevent Islamic militancy spilling over from neighbouring Sudan or Somalia. In connection with the move, six Saudi citizens, accused of backing the Ethiopian protests, were rounded up in Addis Ababa around the Anwar Mosque - the biggest mosque in the country - for distributing tracts promoting extremism in Ethiopia. The Saudis have since been deported to their country without the police filing any charges against them, despite claims that they were "financing terror".
Election venue remains controversial
Meanwhile, polls have been scheduled for October 7 to elect new leadership for the EIASC. Registration for the forthcoming elections began in all nine regional states and two city administrations, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, on September 13, and will continue until Saturday.
The polls will take place in district halls throughout the country, after the EIASC ruled out mosques as polling centers. But some Muslim communities have disagreed with the EIASC directive expressing fears that polls outside mosques could be "rigged".
"Materials have been distributed in mosques in the past few days, especially during Juma, to protest the election, scheduled to be held in district halls, and run by the government," said Ibrahim Mohammed, an Addis Ababa resident. Ibrahim said Muslim communities in the country want those jailed to be released before the polls.
In July, Federal Police Commissioner Workneh Gebeyehu, in a televised address, blamed the mosque's committee for instigating the unrest. He said police investigation "shows the whole movement is associated with extremism." Reuters news agency also quoted the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi as saying that 'Islamic hardliners were "peddling ideologies of intolerance"'.
One of Ethiopia's opposition parties, All Ethiopian Unity Party, earlier on expressed concerns over the government's reactions to the protest. The party said the protesters had done nothing illegal.
"So far, we have not seen anything illegal. None," Hailu Shawel, chairman of the party, told the media during the protest.
"They [the government] just want to control everything that moves, control everything that sticks, control everything that tries to move in a direction which they do not like," added Shawel.
Amnesty International has also expressed concern about reports of widespread rights violations in the government's crackdown on the protests, including beatings and unlawful detention. In a statement during the protest, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said it was "monitoring the situation closely," and is urging "all sides to remain calm, to respect the law and the right to freedom of religion."