A former Ethiopian administrator pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of instigating ethnic violence in an eastern region, where a government investigation found authorities presided over a litany of crimes including beheadings, torture, and mass rape.
Abdi Mohammed Omer, who spent more than a decade in charge of gas-rich eastern Somali province, is among 47 officials from the region accused of stoking violence that killed 58 people and injured over 260 in the provincial capital Jijiga in August.
Last week, Abdi and five other officials were charged with ‘direct or indirect involvement’ in instigating ethnic Somalis to take up arms against non-Somalis. The remaining suspects remain at large.
The defendants ‘organised a youth group (to carry out attacks) and disseminated messages to kill all other non-Somalis, as well as to seize and destroy their properties, loot banks and insurance firms, and burn down churches and petrol stations’, according to the charge sheet.
Appearing in court alongside five other suspects on Wednesday, Abdi labelled the charges ‘concocted lies’ – a response tantamount to a not-guilty plea under Ethiopian law.
The other defendants will make pleas when the hearing resumes on February 23.
Abdi’s arrest — weeks after the unrest broke out — comes amid sweeping reforms instigated by the new 42-year-old prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy, appointed in April, has promised to rein in the powerful security services and made peace with separatist groups, including rebels whom Abdi had spent years trying to crush.
Rights groups regularly accused Abdi’s administration of abuses, including torture. A five-month federal investigation by Ethiopia’s Federal Attorney General’s office described a reign of terror.
It said police had uncovered a grave containing at least 200 bodies along the border with Oromiya Region, as well as another one with more than 50 corpses.
Officials have said more charges are likely to be filed as a result.