A former Ethiopian administrator pleaded not guilty to charges of instigating ethnic violence in an eastern region, where a government investigation found authorities presided over 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 accused of stoking violence that killed 58 and injured over 260 in the provincial capital Jijiga last 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 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” – 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 unrest broke out — comes amid sweeping reforms instigated by 42-year-old prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy, appointed in April, promised to rein in the powerful security services and made peace with separatist groups, including rebels Abdi 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 said more charges are likely to be filed.