Pastor Omot Agwa Okwoy, the leader of Mekane Yesus Church, is a human rights defender of indigenous people living in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. He also advocates for the establishment and protection of national parks in rural parts of the country.
After two years in detention, Pastor Omot was released on bail of 50,000 Ethiopian birr on January 17, 2017. On April 3, 2018, the government finally decided to drop the charges against Omot. How did this happen?
Omot served as an interpreter to the World Bank Inspection Panel in 2014 for the investigation of a complaint submitted by the Anuak indigenous people. The Anuak alleged that the World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program supports the government’s unjust program of “Villagization,” which forces the marginalized indigenous people to be displaced from their ancestral lands and relocated elsewhere.
In 2015, the inspection panel’s report to the World Bank Board of Directors was leaked to the media, which publicized the panel’s judgment that the bank had violated its own policies.
On March 15, 2015, Omot was detained with six others at the Addis Ababa airport, from where he intended to travel to Nairobi for a workshop on food security. Before his arrest, many had warned him that security forces were looking for him. Shortly after the World Bank Board began reviewing the panel’s report, Omot said he was under threat by government officials. Although the panel’s report had not disclosed his identity, photos of him taken with other community members appeared in the report.
After his detention, eyewitnesses said that armed police brought Omot, in chains, to his house in Addis Ababa, and that they confiscated personal belongings and documents. The seizure of Omot’s documents and computers also raised concerns about the fate of others who had testified before the inspection panel.
Omot was detained in Kilito prison, far from the Gambella region where most of his family lives. Confined to a small, dark room, Omot was subjected to torture every night for six months.
On September 7, 2015, Omot was charged under the anti-terrorism law. The charge related to the workshop that he had planned to attend in Nairobi the previous March, which the government of Ethiopia linked to terrorist activity. He was also accused of being the leader and co-founder of the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM) and having connections with leaders of the London-based group.
Omot and the six others remained in detention for 161 days without any charges being brought against them. Such a long duration is allowed under the Ethiopian anti-terrorist proclamation, which many human rights defenders believe to be clearly contrary to human rights standards.
The World Bank’s 2015 panel report said that an “Operational interface” existed between the villagization program – which forced the displacement of indigenous people from their traditional ancestral land – and the PBS program. However, as the watchdog Oakland Institute’s report Moral Bankruptcy has stated, the Bank came up with the same program under a different name, Enhancing Shared Prosperity through Equitable Services (ESPES), which it has funded in Ethiopia for about $600 million.
Though Omot’s arrest is linked to his work as a translator for the World Bank panel, the Bank did not help him when he when the government went after him. As Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, has said, “Omot provided an important service for the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, but the Bank failed to take action when he was detained, arrested, and tortured for this work. The Bank did exactly the same to the Anuaks – actively disregarding their own massive failures and shortcomings when abuses were revealed. This failure of an institution that purportedly helps the poor is appalling and donor governments must hold it accountable.”