With USAID’s support, local lawyers and law students are helping open up the justice system to hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia.
Is this really happening to me?” Abdela Muhammed Ahimed kept asking himself that question.
Several years ago, he left his property in the East Hararghe Zone of Ethiopia’s Oromia Region for voluntary military service. When he returned home, he discovered that his land had been seized by squatters.
Ahimed tried to regain possession of his property, but in January 2016, local police confronted him, arrested him and kept him in jail for three months with no charges filed. Because land ownership certificates are non-existent in some rural parts of Ethiopia, he could not produce any formal records to prove his ownership.
During Ahimed’s confinement, the squatters accused him of rape and the prosecutor filed charges against him. He waited another nine months until trial. He had no money to hire a lawyer and had no knowledge of the criminal court system. After the accusers testified, the judge found Ahimed guilty and sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
For many Ethiopians, such a scenario is all too familiar. Justice is inaccessible largely because of lack of knowledge of laws and legal rights. More importantly, with nearly 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line, most people cannot afford legal fees. Women, children, the disabled and the elderly are especially disadvantaged. Not surprisingly, citizens’ confidence in the justice system is low.
In an effort to make the justice system more accessible, academic staff and students from the College of Law at Haramaya University began providing legal services in the local area in 2010. In 2013, USAID teamed up with the university to expand the program, creating the Access to Justice and Legal Awareness Activity. Through the program, trained lawyers provide services from 43 legal service centers strategically located inside courts and prison facilities. The lawyers provide advice, write pleadings, represent clients in court and resolve disputes outside of the courtroom. To help train the next generation, the lawyers supervise law students in providing advice.
One of these lawyers, Megersa Abate, who provides legal advice in prisons, heard about Ahimed’s story and filed an appeal to the Oromia Region Supreme Court. The court conducted further investigation, determined that the witnesses’ testimony was false, and dismissed the charges.
One year after his arrest, Ahimed was a free man and able to return to his property. “I’m very happy, thank you to Haramaya University and USAID,” he said upon his release from prison.
Thus far, lawyers like Abate have filed 262 prisoner appeals and achieved an extraordinary 92 percent success rate. Through the appeals, the court freed 38 prisoners like Ahimed and reduced sentences for 204 prisoners by anywhere from six months to 18 years.
Cases like Ahimed’s that relate to land disputes are not uncommon and can often turn into criminal cases, with those charged unable to afford private layers or even the court fee to bring their case to court.
Take the case of Asha Adem. The 20-year-old was living with her grandfather. After he died, the right to live in his house passed to her through inheritance. However, eight people filed a joint action against her, hoping to keep Adem from getting the house.
The case eventually went to court. Because she had no funds to fight against them, Adem was afraid and on the verge of abandoning her claim to the house. Fortunately, she was eligible to receive legal assistance from the Harar Legal Service Center.
Zelalem Michael, the attorney at the aid center, helped prepare pleadings and successfully represented her in court. “I was in tears when the judgment was in my favor; I couldn’t even speak. I am so grateful to Zelalem for his support,” Adem said.
Access to Justice has provided free legal aid services to nearly 169,000 people, 52 percent of whom were women, and has explained legal rights to nearly 324,000. Perhaps more impressive is the value of services provided—using an hourly rate of $4.50 (the average for legal services in rural Ethiopia), the value of legal aid services provided so far is approximately $58.1 million.
People are now able to get advice about seeking redress and obtaining professional representation before a court of law. The center’s lawyers are also involved in teaching the community about legally recognized rights, duties and privileges in various settings like court compounds, prisons, and public and private schools. These legal awareness activities take place in court compounds before the morning court sessions and at the start of the afternoon court sessions. The activity also has a community radio station that provides legal dramas, radio call-in programs, guest speakers and other activities in two different local languages.
According to Mahir Abdu Semad, president of the Harari Supreme Court, “With these legal services and increased awareness, the community’s confidence in the court system, and in the justice system in general, has grown.”
“Access to legal aid in Ethiopia advances inclusive and accountable governance and improves confidence in the legal system. Without free legal aid, these communities will continue to suffer from escalating violence and exploitation,” said USAID/Ethiopia Mission Director Leslie Reed.
Not surprisingly, Haramaya University’s reputation has grown stronger because of these legal services, and with USAID support, the quality of legal education at the university has improved. In the activity’s remaining year, USAID and Haramaya University are working with other universities and the Government of Ethiopia to continue the legal services.
“This activity has become an indispensable asset for ensuring access to justice and respect for human rights,” said Haramaya University President Chemeda Fininsa.
(By Robert Sauers)
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