Yesterday, the Lideta Federal High Court in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa pronounced prominent journalist Eskinder Nega and twenty-three others guilty of having “links to US-based group Ginbot 7, considered a terrorist group under Ethiopian law, and other outlawed groups.”
Both Eskinder and [opposition leader] Andualem [Arage] were found guilty of “participation in a terrorist organisation” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act.”
Andualem was also found guilty of serving as a “leader or decision maker of a terrorist organisation.”
Both Eskinder and Andualem are accused of using examples of Arab Spring uprisings in the media to promote anti-government protest in Ethiopia.
Five of the defendants, including Eskinder and Andualem, will reappear in court on July 13 to present their mitigating circumstances.
According to Reuters, “prosecutors said they would not demand the death penalty and called for jail sentences from five years to life for the group.”
The case adds to controversy surrounding Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation, which critics argue is more a tool that the government uses to suppress dissent than a vehicle it uses for punishing genuine terrorists. Both Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued statements on the case yesterday. Amnesty wrote, “Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, used to convict the defendants on several of the charges, enables the prosecution of legitimate and peaceful activities as ‘terrorist’ acts.” CPJ, meanwhile, said, “With its ruling, the court has effectively criminalized free expression, trivialized the genuine threat of terrorism, and undermined the credibility of the judicial system in Ethiopia.”
Eskinder and those tried with him are not the first to be targeted by Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. In January, Human Rights Watch denounced the conviction of five persons (including three journalists and an opposition leader) under the law. An HRW researcher stated, “The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent. The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt.” HRW also said that the conviction of two Swedish journalists under the law in December “demonstrates that the country’s anti-terrorism law is fundamentally flawed and being used to repress legitimate reporting.” In addition to condemning the ways in which the government uses the law, HRW has raised concerns about reported torture of suspects detained on terrorism charges.
As I wrote in February,
Ethiopia is a country that plays a large role in the Horn of Africa; some in Washington consider Ethiopia an important ally in American efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is also one of the largest aid recipients in the world (more here). The contrast between Ethiopia’s favored status in strategic and aid circles on the one hand, and the sharp criticisms its government draws from human rights groups on the other, raises important questions about how the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” plays out at the local level.
The conviction of Eskinder Nega and the others adds even greater urgency to these questions.
So far I have not seen any official reaction to the trial from the US government.
[UPDATE]: A statement from the US State Department:
We are deeply concerned about the Ethiopian government’s conviction of a number of journalists and opposition members under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. This practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law, and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.
As Secretary Clinton has said, “When a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere. That is why the United States joins its global partners in calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists in every country across the globe and for the end to intimidation.”
For those who are interested, Ginbot 7’s website is here.