Acid claims: academic acquitted

An Ethiopian  academic whose partner accused him of threatening to attack her with acid as been cleared of several charges.

Dereje Getachew Regasa (31) pleaded not guilty to assaulting a female, threatening to kill her and threatening to do grievous bodily harm, and a jury of six men and six women unanimously acquitted him on all charges after just 20 minutes’ deliberation yesterday.

The man embraced a supporter in the public gallery and fell to his knees, in tears.

Regasa, a lecturer in Economics at Mekelle University, came to Dunedin in April 2016 on an academic scholarship.

He completed his PhD at the University of Otago in August, the court heard.

On Thursday, his wife Fre Hagos, who came to join him in Dunedin in May last year, told the jury Regasa had grabbed her by the throat, took a knife from a table and threatened to kill her, amid allegations of infidelity.

Five months later, in April, after they had separated, Ms Hagos said they were speaking on the phone and she reaffirmed her decision to stay apart.

Regasa was accused of threatening to pour acid over her head.

The defendant sat in the witness box yesterday and said his ex-partner’s claims were “totally false”.

The jury agreed.

From a farming family, Regasa had placed in the top 1% of high-school students, before completing bachelor’s and master’s qualifications in Ethiopia.

“This is a man who’s hard-working and has an academic career plotted out,” counsel Anne Stevens QC said.

The allegations Regasa had been controlling were a fabrication, she said.

Ms Hagos acknowledged, when she came to the country she had her own bank account, phone, job and the defendant helped her buy a car.

“She’s liberated, not controlled,” Mrs Stevens said.

The lawyer reacted passionately to what she said was “racist ethnic stereotyping of Ethiopian people” by the prosecution.

Under cross-examination, Regasa accepted his home country had a traditionally patriarchal structure but Mrs Stevens said there was no evidence he exhibited such an attitude.

It was accepted by all parties the couple clashed after Ms Hagos went to meet another man in November last year.

But Regasa said it was she who was the aggressor.

“I was upset because she broke my trust. I did not assault her,” he said.

Ms Hagos grabbed a small knife and told him: “I’m a strong woman”, he told the court.

Mrs Stevens said the complainant only raised the criminal allegations with police days after she was contacted by Immigration New Zealand and was faced with the possibility she had to leave the country.

Ms Hagos, a qualified accountant who said she wanted to stay here, had only been able to remain in the country on the basis that it would be unsafe for her to return to Ethiopia.

For her to seek refugee status here, Mrs Stevens said, she had to have grounds to support her claim.

Crown prosecutor Craig Power said the issue around Ms Hagos’ immigration status was a red herring but the jury was not convinced.

Regasa’s visa lapses in March next year.