- Court fines each 5,000 Br, suspends their civil liberties for two years
The criminal case of Askallukan Trading Plc came to an end when each of the four defendants were sentenced to four and half years imprisonment, fined 5,000 Br, and had their civil rights suspended for two years by the Sixth Business Process Reengineering (BPR) Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court, on Wednesday, December 22, 2010.
In October, Menna Terefe, general manager of the company; Girma Bekele, accountant; Dereje Bayu, and employee in the finance and administration department; and Birhanu Lenchamo, a promoter; were found guilty of fraud and undertaking an activity without a licence.
The defendants were charged by Mulatu Gebissa, the prosecutor, on behalf of close to 1,200 people who each paid the company 37,582.65 Br (amounting to a total of 45 million Br) for a trip to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, which included a stadium hospitality package, air and land transport, as well as hotel accommodation and meals. The promotional campaign was run between November 2009 and May 2010, during which the company claimed to have 10,000 guaranteed visas.
On the day of the sentencing, an air of anticipation filled the courtroom before the hearing started an hour later than scheduled. Adem the judge, recounted
Ibrahim the arguments that had been brought by the prosecutor and defendants for aggravating and mitigating circumstances before passing his sentence.
The defendants should each be sentenced to 16 years in prison, the maximum sentence for the offence, as their actions caused the victims death, mental illness, and financial loss, Mulatu Gebissa, the prosecutor, had argued at the end of November. The company should be fined 200,000 Br, 10 times the amount stipulated by law, due to the deliberate nature of the crime, he also argued.
However, the court fined the company 30,000 Br, and denied the prosecutor’s request that its business licence be revoked.
“The law allows the revocation of a licence if a company was engaged in an activity that harmed public peace,” the judge said. “In this case, it is difficult to determine that the company had done that.”
The judge agreed that Girmay Gebremichael, managing director of the company and Menna’s husband, masterminded the entire campaign and that the defendants’ involvement was minimal as they were not aware of the illegal nature of their activity, as argued by Ruth Assefa, the other defendants’ lawyer, in mitigation of the sentence.
Girmay had been investigated, but was not charged as his whereabouts were unknown at the time. He has since been arrested in Germany and the federal police are in talks with the German government through the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).
“The court believed in the minimal participation of the defendants and it would be unfair to sentence them to as much time as Girmay would have been,” the judge said before giving each defendant four and a half years behind bars.
However, the defence’s argument that Menna was the primary care giver of a sick child requiring medical attention abroad as well a three-month old baby was not accepted.
“The court would have considered it if the victims had been paid back their money, but doing so under the circumstances would be unfair,” the judge said.
The courtroom was silent and the defendants expressionless during the sentencing.
Girmay, Menna, and the company were found guilty in August 2010, by the Federal High Court, Ninth Civil Bench, in the civil suit brought against them by 212 victims in 10 different filings, and were fined 10.6 million Br.
The amount was to refund the plaintiffs what they had paid for the trip plus interest, to be calculated from the date of payment or, in the absence of a receipt, from the date the suit was filed.
The court had granted an injunction against a residential house, a bank account, and cars owned by the defendants, which are to be used to pay back the money. The victims’ presence at the Federal High Court’s compound has since become a common sight as they follow the execution of the judgement and the sale of properties.
Unlike the judgement in the civil suit, all the victims at the court last week were displeased with the sentencing, and voiced it loudly while congregating in groups following the session.
“I am really surprised and disappointed by the verdict, even mobile phone thieves get higher sentences than this,” one of the victims, who did not want to be named, told Fortune. “How is it that the general manager of the company, which was responsible for the whole offence, received the same sentence as mere employees who were only doing what they were told?”
The sentence of the employees should not have been the same as Menna’s, according to a veteran legal expert who requested anonymity as the case is sensitive to many people.
“They should not even have been prosecuted, unless the prosecutor could show that they had the intention of harming the victims and committed the offence knowing the intention of the company,” he told Fortune. “Even then, they should have been prosecuted as co offenders or for negligence, which carry a sentence of less prison time.”
He agreed that the prosecution of Menna as the principal offender was correct. Although she had argued that she was not present at work during the promotional campaign due to pregnancy complications, she would have taken the profit the company made, according to the expert.
The victims were calling friends and family soon after the session to share the news. Many of them did not have legal representation and were unsure of which measures to take next. They debated and seemed to agree to appeal against the sentence.