Peter Heinlein, (VOA) | Addis Ababa
An Ethiopian national working for the United Nations in the restive Ogaden region is being tried on terrorism charges for allegedly having links with an outlawed rebel group. The defendant was arrested last year after helping to negotiate the release of two kidnapped U.N. aid workers.
U.N. security officer Abdirahman Sheikh Hassan appeared briefly in an Addis Ababa courtroom Monday. His case was continued until May 15.
Hassan was arrested last July under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. A charge sheet seen by VOA accuses him of intent to forcefully overthrow Ethiopia’s government as a leader of the banned Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Weeks before his arrest, Hassan had been involved in negotiations to free two employees of the U.N. World Food Program. The pair had been kidnapped and held for more than six weeks by unknown gunmen after their vehicles were ambushed during a mission to monitor food aid distribution in Ethiopia’s drought-stricken Ogaden region.
One of their WFP colleagues was killed in the ambush and another was badly wounded.
The government accused the ONLF of carrying out that attack. But the ONLF strongly condemned the incident, calling it “cowardly and cold-blooded.” A statement emailed to journalists alleged that government forces had attacked the WFP vehicles after the humanitarian workers stumbled upon evidence of mass murders by government troops.
A government spokesman called the allegations “preposterous.” The competing claims could not be verified because Ethiopia sharply limits access to the Ogaden region, where a counterinsurgency operation is under way.
Sources close to the case say that as a senior U.N. security officer in the region, and a Somali speaker, Hassan played a crucial role in communicating with whoever kidnapped the WFP workers. But the government has presented as evidence transcripts of telephone conversations suggesting he had been taking orders from an exiled senior ONLF official.
In a telephone interview, the U.N. country representative for Ethiopia, Eugene Owusu, cautioned not to make too strong a connection between the case of the abducted workers and Hassan’s arrest.
“The premise of your point is that any difficulties he has have to do with his role in the incident that took place,” said Owusu. “I think that is not quite correct. The issue is, one has to be careful and not misinterpret this to mean that it is totally and directly linked to that incident.”
Owusu said U.N. agencies have been in close touch with the Ethiopian government to ensure Hassan’s rights are protected.
“This is something we’ve been working with the government intensively to ensure that the proper privileges and immunities are respected, and there is open sharing of information between the government and ourselves on this issue,” he said.
The anti-terrorism law under which Hassan is charged has been sharply criticized by human rights and media freedom groups, who say it can be used to suppress political dissent. Government spokesmen reject that charge, arguing that the law is based on similar statutes in other countries.
The ONLF has been fighting since 1984 for autonomy of the Ogaden region, which borders Somalia. The rebel group was among five organizations outlawed as terrorists last year, shortly before Hassan’s arrest.