In a high-profile corruption trial at the Federal High Court, businessman Abnet Gebremeskel, formerly a close confidant of prominent tycoon Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi (Sheikh), faced criminal charges. Prosecutors claim in an arraignment, which unfolded over two days, that a real estate transaction and the financial dealings for a plot on Africa Avenue (Bole Road), was fraudulent.

Prosecutors allege that a transaction involving a 1,971Sqm plot in Qirqos District, Woreda 2, known as Bole Towers, was transferred fraudulently to Mullege Plc for 83 million Br. An American citizen, Abnet owns a 40pc stake in Bole Towers Plc, which leased the plot, with the remaining share held by Al-Amoudi, a Saudi business tycoon. The alleged deceit is purported to have occurred during the transaction at the Sheraton Addis, a deal that was later authenticated. However, the prosecution contends that Abnet concealed ownership details in collusion with officials at the Land Holding & Registration Agency.

The trial, presided over by a panel of judges including Yonas Mengistu, Gizachew Geleta, and Getahun Gebremeskel, heard testimonies from eight expert witnesses the prosecution brought forward, including Jemal Ahmed, current CEO of MIDROC Investment Group, and Teklu Hailu, former chief financial officer (CFO) of the Group. Jemal, a key witness for the prosecution team, provided a detailed account of the transaction.

Jemal told the Court that he introduced the buyer, Mustefa Awel, a significant shareholder in Mullege Plc, a company incorporated in 2006 with a registered capital of 495.6 million Br. He claimed to have not been aware of the transaction conducted without Al-Amoudi's prior consent. He testified that he later discovered that Al-Amoudi had not consented to the deal, leading to revelations about the covert depositing of the proceeds into Abnet's personal account.

The legal proceedings took a dramatic turn during the cross-examination of Jemal by the defence team from the 5A Legal Firm.

The defence attorneys - Ali Mohammed, Amare Ashenafi, Almaw Wolie, and Ashenafi Yirga - probed Jemal on several points, including overseeing a landholding certificate that displayed Abnet's name instead of Bole Towers Plc. They inquired about the event where Abnet's spouse was also in attendance to sign off on the property. Jemal admitted to signing the agreement as a witness without examining the details, including the ownership part, a point the defence seized upon to question his credibility and thoroughness.

"I'd still sign on documents I trust," he told the Court.

Jemal's longstanding relationship with Abnet dates back to 2000, and his ascent in Al-Amoudi's business circle, where he managed Horizon Plantations Ethiopia Plc, a subsidiary of Midroc Investment Group. He was eventually appointed CEO of Midroc, an association under scrutiny during the cross-examination. The defence team argued that Jemal's signing of the document, especially after being granted a power of attorney, proves he was more informed than he told the Court. They also hammered the issue of his company's involvement in supplying materials to the construction on the disputed plot, to which Jemal's response was terse yet telling: "It's our duty."

The prosecution's strategy included bringing Teklu, now finance advisor at Midroc, to the stand to establish Al-Amoudi's part-ownership of the plot through his shares at Bole Towers Plc. He testified about a significant financial transaction - 192 million Br - transferred from Midroc's account to Bole Towers Plc, allegedly under Al-Amoudi's instructions, revealing the financial backing for his assets.

"It was considered an investment," said Teklu at the hearing.

The subsequent day's proceedings focused on the other defendants Eskedar Assefa, a GIS expert at the time, and Wondimagegn Dagnaw, landholding right services team leader of the Addis Abeba Landholding Registration & Information Agency Qirqos Branch.

Testimonies of experts such as Bahiru Girma, another landholding expert at the Agency, revealed an "evasive amendment" to the certificate issued in Abnet's name in 2017. The amendment, which occurred three years after the original issuance, inexplicably erased references to Bole Towers Plc, raising serious questions about the document's authenticity and the Agency's role in the alteration process, according to the prosecution's witness.

He told judges that the City Land Development & Administration Bureau should have corrected the document in case of mistaken identities.

"It's not within our mandate," Bahiru said.

Defence lawyers Fasika Alemu and Yared Legese (PhD) probed the witnesses rigorously, seeking to unravel the inconsistencies and transparency of the Agency's processes. The legality of the ownership structure was a point of contention. Expert witnesses indicated ownership should not be altered unless plots are transferred, gifted or inherited.

The experts, including technical expert Behailu Ahmed and document authenticator Azeb Tekle, confirmed that the certificate of ownership issued named both Bole Towers Plc and Abnet when the blueprint was copied, adding another layer of perplexity to the case.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 27,2024 [ VOL 24 , NO 1239]

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