Ethiopian Prosecutors Repeat Request for 25-Year Sentence Against Businessman

Defendant claims he should be released from being innocently incarcerated, during appeals hearing

During the appeals hearing last week of Gebrekidan Beyene, a.k.a. Morocco, general manager and a shareholder of a private limited company by the same name, prosecutors of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA) requested almost the same sentence they originally had, in August 2010: a maximum jail term and confiscation of properties.

Gebrekidan, 53, was accused of engaging in banking activities, which by law are reserved only for banks and other financial institutions, in charges instituted against him in October 2009. He was also accused of providing loans for various businessmen, demanding excessive interest rates, and taking collateral, the charge read further.

In the same file, he was charged with evading 9.5 million Br in income tax and nearly 68 million Br in VAT payments. Money laundering of 78 million Br and presenting false documents to the ERCA were included in the charges. He was further accused of intangible forgery, i.e. using a false name, on cheques.

He was found guilty on all seven counts by Mohamedamin Sani, presiding judge at the Federal High Court, Eleventh Criminal Bench, in July 2010, and sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment and a 221,200 Br fine, in August the same year. His civil rights were also suspended for five years.

In July 2010, the ERCA won a similar case against Ayele Debela and Kebede Tesera, general manager and shareholder of ADH International and Bereket Plc, respectively.

Ayele was sentenced to 20 years and a fine of 165,000 Br while Kebede got 22 years in prison and a 308,000 Br fine by the Federal High Court, Eleventh Criminal Bench. All these cases are pending appeal at the Federal Supreme Court.

Following the verdict against Gebrekidan, both parties expressed dissatisfaction and appealed the sentence to the Federal Supreme Court, Criminal Appeals Bench. Prosecutors from the ERCA were disappointed after asking for 25 years of imprisonment, a 100 million Br fine, and the confiscation of proprieties worth of 159 million Br, while Gebrekidan was unhappy with being imprisoned.

On Thursday, February 24, 2011, the Appeals Bench was filled to the brim with Gebrekidan’s family members and friends, who arrived at the court house an hour before the appeals hearing was due to start. They lined up to greet him in Tigriegna when he arrived, not handcuffed, in sports clothes and shoes.

Gebrekidan’s arrest and sentence were based on the charges brought against him for offences he had not committed, argued Gebreegziaber Tesfaye, his lawyer.

He was involved in normal loan agreements, not loan sharking and bankrupting his creditors, as the charges claimed, the lawyer argued. Gebrekidan was not intentionally transacting in the name he had changed in order to hide his transactions and avoid paying taxes, as claimed by the prosecutors, but made the transactions before legally changing his name from Mohammed Gemal, he argued further.

During the hearing, Gebrekidan continuously interrupted his lawyer with suggestions of things to include in his argument. The hearing on Thursday took four hours before being adjourned to Friday, February 25, by justices Belacew Ansheisso, Birhanu Amenew, and Kidir Aleye.

Following this appeal, the three prosecutors countered that Gebrekidan was involved in loan sharking and bankrupting his clients. He declared and paid tax for only 15 million Br, while his income was valued at a little over 42 million Br per annum. The court was also presented with arguments that he committed intangible forgery after successfully changing his name.

Gebrekidan’s income was what he had claimed; the additional sum was acquired from income generated by fuel trucks, which is exempt from VAT, the defence lawyer argued.

His client “was paid back in stones while he handed out gold to the people,” who were witnesses for the prosecution and paid by the ERCA.

Gebrekidan made a living out of crime, the nature of which should be taken as aggravating circumstances in determining his sentence, prosecutors argued. He had been found guilty on all the charges against him, the penalties of which should land him 58 years behind bars; but, since the crime does not carry life imprisonment or the death penalty, the maximum prison term of 25 years should be imposed, they argued further.

However, the lower court’s decision to mitigate the sentence was correct and the Appeals Bench should release Gebrekidan, either as a free man or on parole, the defence argued. His good behaviour in prison and the investment he had made in his country should be counted as mitigating circumstances, the lawyer claimed, also counting the defendant’s poor health in mitigation. The case was adjourned for a verdict until May 2, 2011.

An alleged similar offence involving money laundering and loan sharking against Ayalew Tesema, board chairman and major shareholder of Ayat Real Estate, is underway at the Federal High Court.

 

 

Eden Sahle,  Addis Fortune