Jawar Mohammed with his wife, Arfasse Gemeda; and Misha Chiri Credit: Photos courtesy of Arfasse Gemeda and Kitesso Chiri

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Minnesota U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar have asked the U.S. State Department to put pressure on the government of Ethiopia to release Jawar Mohammed and Misha Chiri, both former residents of Minnesota. The two Oromo men were residing in Addis Ababa when the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrested them on June 30 and July 10, respectively. 

They’ve been detained without charges, though Jawar has appeared for court dates a few times a week as part of a pre-trial evidence-hearing process. Misha’s next scheduled court date is Thursday, Sept. 3. 

In a letter sent last week to Tibor P. Nagy Jr., the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Senators Smith and Klobuchar called Ethiopia’s actions a suppression of human rights. And they requested assistance in helping the two members of the Minnesota Oromo community. “We urge the State Department to take all appropriate actions to ensure that they are treated humanely and assist them in protecting and exercising their full legal rights,” the letter states. 

The letter concludes, “While Ethiopia has made great strides over the last two years to build a more inclusive, functional democracy, the recent political unrest and responsive actions taken by the Ethiopian government have threatened the progress that has been made.” 

In interviews with Sahan Journal, family members of the detained men recognized the effort from Minnesota’s senators. 

“We are going to continue pushing. We are trying to put international pressure on that government. It may help us have them released,” said Arfasse Gemeda, Jawar’s wife, who lives in Blaine.

Jawar, a media mogul who has almost two million followers on social media, has been a staunch critic of the Ethiopian government. He is also the member of the opposition political party, Oromo Federalist Congress. 

Given the apparently political nature of Jawar’s detention, Arfasse doesn’t expect a solution to come from the courts. “It’s not a criminal case,” she said. “I’m not sure that a court proceeding could even solve this problem.”

Jawar and Misha moved back to Ethiopia in 2018, when the new country’s first Oromo prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, promised reform. Both of the men were founding members of the Oromia Media Network, an influential television station that started in Minneapolis and broadcast in the Oromo language. 

Jawar served as its executive director until January of this year, and moved the organization to Ethiopia in 2018, after Abiy came to power. Misha performed tech work for the organization. 

“Jawar was a longtime resident in Minnesota, and Misha has lived longer in Minneapolis than anywhere else.” 

Misha’s brother, Kitesso Chiri, said that his brother came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old, graduated from high school in Minneapolis, and is a U.S. citizen. 

“He is very energetic, and low key,” said Kitesso, who lives in Blaine. “He has great friends. He’s a great debater on any topic. He engages his friends but at the same time, when he’s in his house, he is very quiet.” 

On June 29, the Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa was shot and killed in Ethiopia. “A lot of people believed it was a political assassination,” Ayantu said. “Protests erupted, and the government used the protests as an excuse to crack down.” 

Jawar and Misha’s detention occurred as part of that repression. 

‘They have been designated as enemies of the state’

Kitesso said Misha went with Jawar in 2018, when he decided to transplant the OMN in Ethiopia. 

A growing youth movement condemned a seemingly sham election in 2015, resulting in mounting pressure. “The sitting prime minister”—Hailemariam Desalegn—”offered to resign to solve the crisis,” Kitesso said. At the same time, the current prime minister, Abiy, was emerging as a local leader from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization.

After assuming the premiership in 2018, Abiy released political prisoners and brought some democratic reforms to the country, including reaching out to opposition politicians and releasing thousands of political prisoners and journalists.

In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

The prime minister visited Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and received favorable notices. 

“With that hope, they decided to go back,” Kitesso said of his brother and his colleagues. “They planned to stay there and make the changes they desired.” 

According to Arfasse, Jawar’s wife, the prime minister called for the opposition parties to come back. “He called the media to have an office there,” she said. “He gave people hope that there would be change, that there would be this new era of democracy. Many people had high hopes for change.” 

Ayantu, who is also a Ph.D. student, was living in Ethiopia when the first Oromo protests surfaced in the winter of 2015. She stayed for a year, returning to Minnesota in the summer of 2016. 

Ayantu said she has been doing organizing work around political prisoners in Ethiopia, and that protesters have come under attack. “They have been designated as enemies of the state,” she said. 

“When Ahmed came to power, people were very excited,” she added. “He is a reformist. But he has put all of them back in prison.” 

Jawar became a target because he is a part of the opposition, Ayantu said. Meanwhile, Misha is not an activist, or even a journalist, according to Ayantu.

“The only reason he is caught up in it is because of the crackdown of Oromo institutions and academics, and his association with Oromia Media Network, which was shut down the beginning of July,” she said.

Arfasse said the Oromo struggle in Ethiopia is similar to the Black Lives Matter struggle in the U.S. “Black people are not saying our lives are the only ones that matter,” she said. “They are saying, until Black lives matter, you can’t say all lives matter. When Oromo people receive those basic human rights, you can live freely.” 

‘He was taken to a dark room and asked to confess something.’

The late June killing of Hachalu triggered the government’s latest wave of repression. “After the assassination, the government called Jawar Mohamed to come and talk about the funeral plans,” Ayantu said. “Basically it was a trap. There were 35 of them, and the police were there, ready to arrest them.” 

According to Kitesso, his brother was staying at a cousin’s house in Ethiopia, following the death of the singer. Kitesso was worried, because of his brother’s association with Jawar. 

“I talked to him three times a week,” he said. 

On the day of Misha’s arrest, he told his brother that he saw soldiers outside going door to door. “That was my last conversation with him directly,” Kitesso said. 

Kitesso has since learned from speaking to Senators Smith and Klobuchar, along with the U.S. embassy, that Misha is staying in a makeshift detention facility in a converted elementary school. “The embassy told us he was held there and taken to the military camp. He was taken to a dark room and asked to confess something,” Kitesso said. 

Senator Klobuchar didn’t respond to Sahan Journal’s requests for comment; Senator Smith’s office declined a request citing her schedule. The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return an interview request by press time.

Kitesso said his brother’s U.S. citizenship bodes well for his release. While Kitesso has stayed in steady contact with the senators and U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, he wishes more could be done. “I think there is a general feeling that they don’t want to look like they are intervening on a foreign country’s judicial system,” he said. 

Arfasse has felt fear and anguish with her husband detained. Sometimes, she said, family who live near the detention center have been turned away when they attempt to visit Jawar. His own lawyers, she added, sometimes can’t see him.  

“You are fighting a lawless system,” she said. “If there were laws, you would know what the rules were.” 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...