By BosNewsLife Africa Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA (BosNewsLife)-- An influential rights group says three Christian men have been "wrongfully arrested" in southern Ethiopia and that two of them face years of imprisonment for refusing to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam.
International Christian Concern (ICC) and local Christians said Nura Araro, Soka Araro and Obsa Ogeto were detained August 12 in the town of Shashemene, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa.
While Nura Araro was released on August 12, Christian converts Soka Araro and Obsa Ogeto face up to five years and three years imprisonment respectively on trumped-up charges of growing and distributing illegal substances, according to ICC investigators.
"Before their imprisonment, people sent messages to these guys, saying, 'if you are not back to your [Islamic] faith, you will face our trap,'" their pastor explained in published remarks. "Its...widely known the imprisonment was religiously motivated. We know it to be an unconstitutional attack," the church leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity, amid security concerns.
Nura Araro added that local Muslims "orchestrated" a trap with police of regional "Kebele district leaders, political officers and court judges as well."
AUTHORITIES THREATEN KILLINGS
He alleged authorities "even agreed to kill one or three of us." They, "threw a spear on me but God rescued me," the Christian added referring to the dropped charges against him.
The Christian stressed however that he and his fellow believers "are ready to die for the truth [as] we understand [that] Jesus is the true way."
ICC told BosNewsLife it is working with their local church to collect evidence on behalf of the two men still facing
prosecution "and to demand that justice be served".
Ogeto, 32, was only released on bail on 0ctober 15, after he was repeatedly denied medical attention for hemorrhoids and related dehydration developed as result of the unsanitary conditions in jail, ICC said. The group's contracted attorney was reportedly eventually able to negotiate for a private physician to treat Obsa from his cell.
Soka Araro, 31, was unable to raise the bail money for his release and continues to be held at West Arsi Zone Prison in Shashemene, according to Christians familiar with the case.
NO EVIDENCE YET
It was difficult to reach Ethiopian officials for comment. Obsa and Soka have yet to hear the alleged evidence against them, trial observers said.
ICC said that at each each of the four hearings since the charges were handed down three months ago, the prosecution was granted an extension to collect evidence. "The prosecution filed its witnesses against Obsa and Soka at the latest hearing on December 10, after which the case was adjourned to December 25", Christmas Day for many Christians.
ICC's Regional Manager for Africa, Cameron Thomas told BosNewsLife that "Obsa and Soka deserve justice and the Christian community of Shashemene deserves the fair application of the law."
His group launched a campaign over the weekend urging Christians around the world to call Ethiopian Embassies to "respectfully" asking for Soka Araro's "unconditional release" and charges to be dropped.
"As a nation committed to the protection of every individual right to freely practice the religion of their choice, Ethiopia cannot stand to allow two innocent men to lose years of their life behind bars because of their Christian faith," Thomas added.
WIDER CRACKDOWN REPORTED
The trial is part of a wider crackdown on Christians in the heavily Islamic region, his grouoe said.
"A 97 percent Muslim area, Christians in Shashemene often suffer harassment for their faith. Driven from their homes and excommunicated from their communities, Christians face immense hardship following their conversion from Islam," his group explained.
ICC said in "many cases" concerts are forced to rely on the goodwill of a local church for their basic needs.
Yet, "increasingly engaged in expensive legal battles over their right to church property, the local church is struggling to meet the needs of ostracized converts" and their families, such as "Obsa and Soka, wrongfully imprisoned for their faith," ICC added.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the accused."
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