My Father, Who Dared to Defend Land Rights
Sir, Your Big Read article, “The billionaire’s farm” (March 2), captures well the ramifications of the takeover of land and natural resources on the most marginalised communities in Ethiopia, a destination for many of the foreign investors. The devastating impact is way too personal for some of us.
Okello Akway Ochalla, mentioned in the article, is my father. He was kidnapped and then renditioned to Ethiopia and has been languishing in jail for two years, charged as a terrorist. His crime being — having witnessed the massacre of his people in 2003 as the governor of Gambella, having had to flee the country since he feared for his own life, having been separated from his family — my sister and I spent half of our lives as refugees in Kenya, before coming to the US in 2013 — that he dared to advocate for the human rights of the people of Gambella and the Anuak community.
On March 7, a final verdict was expected in my father’s case and yet once again to break his spirit, the verdict has been postponed to April 6. The strongest evidence the court has against my father is his own confession. A confession obtained, as my father explained in his closing statement, “after being kidnapped and suffering in detention for more than three months without any defence lawyer and communication with anyone”. He added: “The defence statement was made to look as if it was voluntarily submitted to the court… at the time I was giving the statement to the police, I was in an environment where the police investigator had put the pistol on the table in front of me and I was being tortured.”
If anyone cares to read the evidence brought forward by the defence and my father’s closing argument, it is obvious that the crime committed by my father is one of dissent and that he has committed no terrorist activities. His dissent challenges the continued suffering of Anuak people and the theft of natural resources such as our land, rivers and forests, which is igniting social and political conflict. My father is no terrorist. A good man, a good father and a good leader, my father is a land rights defender!
In the light of the excellent coverage by the FT, my sincere hope is that big donors to Ethiopia, including the US, the UK and the World Bank, will reconsider the impact of this land rush on families such as mine and urge the Ethiopian government to release my father.
Obok Akway Ochalla
Spokane, WA, US