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Ethiopia targets former World Bank translator in crackdown on dissent

A former bank worker, who also assisted ICIJ during a reporting trip, faces life in prison for charges that rights groups decry as "absurd."

Many Anuak were forced into refugee camps following a forced relocation from their homes in Ethiopia. Photo: Andrea Campeanu

Ethiopia’s authoritarian regime has filed terrorism charges against a former World Bank translator who spoke out against alleged government abuses against his indigenous Anuak tribe.

Human rights advocates claim the charges against Pastor Omot Agwa, a leader of the evangelical Makane Yesus church, are a transparent attempt to silence Agwa and other critics who alleged that the Ethiopian government used World Bank funds to violently evict thousands of Anuak.

“The charges are absurd, even by Ethiopian standards,” said Felix Horne, an Ethiopia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It seems like it was a strategy to pick a respected community leader to shut up an entire community.”

Agwa, who also worked briefly as a translator and fixer for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has been held without charges since March 2015. Ethiopian authorities arrested him as he sought to leave the country for a food security workshop in Kenya organized by a Swiss church charity.

He has been held in Maekelawi police station, a site known for torture of political dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch.

The government filed formal charges against Agwa on Sept. 7, but news of the case was first publicized this morning by human rights groups. Ethiopian authorities claim that the church-sponsored gathering was a “terrorist group meeting” and accuse Agwa of communicating with a “senior  terrorist group leader” based in London. Agwa faces 20 years to life in prison on the charges.

The World Bank, which employed Agwa in an investigation of whether Ethiopia’s violent evictions of the Anuak were connected to a $2 billion development program spearheaded by the bank, has provided $950 million in new loans to Ethiopia since Agwa’s arrest.

"When allegations of reprisal are brought to our attention, we work, within the scope of our mandate, with appropriate parties to try to address them,” a World Bank group spokesperson said in an email. "We have made several inquiries about Pastor Omot Agwa since his arrest in March 2015 and detention. Ethiopian authorities have told us his arrest and detention are unrelated to his previous work as a consultant for the [World Bank's] Inspection Panel.”

The Ethiopian government did not respond to ICIJ’s inquiries directed to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its country office at the World Bank.

Agwa, a heavyset pastor with a gentle demeanor and an infectious laugh, assisted ICIJ on a reporting trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2014. Despite constant fear that he would be discovered by federal security agents, Agwa helped an ICIJ reporter meet with Anuak who described beatings, rapes and murders by Ethiopian security forces.

Anuak refugees said that World Bank money from a $2 billion health and education initiative was used to fund mass evictions in which soldiers beat, raped and killed Anuak who refused to move. The bank has long denied the accusations and continued to fund the program for years after the allegations emerged.

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Omot Obang Olom, a former Ethiopian governor who oversaw the relocation of the Anuak, said that he personally diverted $10 million in World Bank money to carry out the evictions, ICIJ, The Huffington Post and other media partners reported in April.

In February 2014, the World Bank sent investigators from its internal watchdog body, the Inspection Panel, to Ethiopia to investigate the allegations by the Anuak refugees. The Inspection Panel employed Agwa as an interpreter and a liaison to the Anuak community, and Agwa translated interviews in which members of the community described severe human rights abuses to the World Bank’s team.

“There was one Anuak man among [military] Special Forces who rejected the order to go force farmers to move to the new location by force,” one Anuak told the Inspection Panel. “And we heard a shot, a highland [federal] policeman shot this man… to death right there.”

In March 2015, the Inspection Panel issued its final report. The report found an “operational link” between the relocation program and the World Bank’s funding, but concluded that the bank was not to blame for the most serious abuses. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said at the time that the bank was “not responsible for any harm” but that “we could have done more to help the Anuak people.”

When the Inspection Panel report – which included Agwa’s photograph – was published, Ethiopian authorities took notice.

“He reported increased scrutiny from security officials,” said Horne of Human Rights Watch. “And they mentioned the World Bank Inspection Panel.”

Pastor Omot AgwaOn March 15, less than two weeks after the Inspection Panel report was published, Agwa was arrested by Ethiopian security forces in the Addis Ababa airport as he was on his way to a workshop in Kenya organized by Bread for All, a development service of the Protestant Church in Switzerland.

The World Bank told Human Rights Watch that it privately raised the case with Ethiopian officials in an effort to secure the release of their former interpreter.

But shortly after Agwa’s arrest, on March 31, the bank approved a new $350 million agriculture project in Ethiopia. Months later, the bank approved another $600 million project, bringing their support of Ethiopia’s government since Agwa’s detention to nearly $1 billion.

The World Bank’s continued financing of Ethiopian projects in the wake of Agwa’s arrest isn’t unusual. The bank has repeatedly failed to take effective measures to prevent retaliation against critics of projects backed by the bank, ICIJ and HuffPost reported earlier this month.

Horne, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said the World Bank’s response to Agwa’s arrest was inadequate and sent a dangerous message to the bank’s clients.

“They just seem to want to wash their hands of the whole thing,” Horne said of the World Bank. “It just shows repressive states like Ethiopia that there is no ramification for these kinds of actions, and they will continue receiving support from the World Bank.”

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