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Ethiopia Hands Dissident 9-year Jail Term

April 27, 2016
Financial Times

An Ethiopian court has handed down a nine-year jail sentence to a leading dissident from the restive region where the government has leased vast tracts of land to foreign investors.

Okello Akway Ochalla had been in exile for a decade when he was seized by South Sudanese security agents in a hotel in that country’s capital two years ago during a trip to organise opposition to the Ethiopian government. He was passed to Ethiopian agents and flown to Addis Ababa. There he was charged with plotting against the state. He was convicted this month and sentenced on Wednesday, his supporters told the Financial Times.

The government calls Mr Okello a terrorist, claiming that he conspired with armed groups plotting attacks. His supporters maintain that he is the latest victim of the authoritarian regime’s determination to crush its opponents.

“This does not stop dissent, it creates it,” said Anuradha Mittal, a land rights activist at the US-based Oakland Institute, who has taken up Mr Okello’s cause.

Mr Okello was serving as governor of the marginalised Gambella region in 2003 when tensions between locals, including his fellow Anuak, and more pro-government migrants from the highlands boiled over. Some 400 Anuak people and other locals were massacred; many more fled. According to human rights groups, the armed forces joined in the slaughter.

Mr Okello escaped and reached Norway, where he was granted asylum. Over the years since, his homeland has become a frontier in a global rush to invest in land. A food price shock in 2007 spurred interest in leasing land as a means to secure supplies of food. Then the financial crisis drew attention to land as an asset immune to the vagaries of stocks and bonds. Last year, 17 agriculture or farmland funds raised $3.9bn, up from the $500m raised by five funds in 2009, according to Preqin, a data provider.

Gambella has a blighted history but its soils are rich. The lowland region is the focus of the Ethiopian government’s drive to boost exports through land investment. Progress has been faltering. An attempt by Karuturi Global of Bangalore to cultivate 100,000 hectares descended into acrimony over unmet promises. The government sent notice to the company in December that its lease had been terminated.