ADDIS ABABA An Ethiopian court has upheld terrorism charges against dozens of Muslims over massive protests against government interference in the religious affairs of the sizable community.
"This is very significant because, if the case is continued in such a way, it may double the punishment, defense lawyer Tamam Ababulga told Voice of America.The Ethiopian High Federal Court upheld Monday, December 17, charges of terrorism against 29 Muslims arrested over protests against government interference in religious affairs.
The court only dropped the charge of trying to overthrow the government.
Charges dropped, because the element that constitutes the two charges are the same," Ababulga said.
Therefore, they may end up in double jeopardy.
The Muslim defendants were arrested by security forces in July on accusations of planning protests.
Federal prosecutors accused the defendants of planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts.
Among those arrested were chairman of a committee chosen to be representative of the Muslim community Abubakar Ahmed, spokesman Ahmedin Jebel, and other committee members.
Protests have rocked Ethiopia over the past months over government interference in the religious affairs of the Muslim community.
Muslims accuse the government of spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the umbrella Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (Majlis) to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
The Ethiopian government has put the Ahbash in charge of the religious affairs of Ethiopia's Muslims.
Muslims say the government move is in violation of the constitution, which prevents the government interference in religious affairs.
Protesters also accuse authorities of fixing elections for the Majlis, the community's main representative body, after jailing Muslim leaders who would have participated in the vote.
Founded by Ethiopian-Lebanese scholar Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, Ahbash is seen by the West as a "friendly alternative" to Wahabi ideology, which the West sees as extreme and militant.
Muslims say Ahbash imams are being brought over from Lebanon to fill the Majlis and teach Ethiopians that Wahabis are non-Muslims.
Defense lawyers say that the charges against the Muslim protestors are unconstitutional.
The court simply evaded the main point of our argument and they say there is nothing there unconstitutional, said Ababulga.
But they say in 90 days you can bring it to the House of Federation by yourself.
"But they simply evade the very essence of our argument."
All the accused pleaded not guilty in court on Monday. The trial will start in January when prosecutors present their witnesses.
The West-backed Ethiopian government has been using terrorism scarecrow to get Western support.
In a report last month, Amnesty International accused the Ethiopian government of targeting Muslims, arresting and charging them with terrorism offensive for no reason but participating in peaceful protests demanding religious freedoms.
The London-based group also accused Addis Ababa of using terrorism fight as a pretext to quell peaceful Muslim protests.
Amnesty also accused Ethiopia of using the excessively broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, introduced in 2009, to prosecute its dissenters and critics, including journalists and members of political opposition parties.
Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia's population, according to a government census in 2007.Yet, other sources put Ethiopia Muslims at about 50% of the country's population.