Lengthy prison terms now loom for the Ethiopian journalists and political activists charged with violating the East African nation’s far-reaching anti-terrorism law. Following the conviction last month of eight citizens there, along with 16 who were tried in absentia, a court in the capital Addis Ababa has handed down severe sentences, raising anew serious questions and concerns about the extent to which the Ethiopian judicial system protects its citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association.
The United States remains deeply concerned about the convictions and judgments passed down on the defendants in this case, the third case in six months in which primarily journalists and opposition political activists were tried under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
The sentences, including 18 years in prison for journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and life imprisonment for opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce concerns about the compatibility of the Anti-Terrorism Law with constitutionally guaranteed rights of Ethiopian citizens. Those tried in absentia were also harshly sentenced by the court.
Nega was arrested last September and accused of trying to incite violence with a series of articles that he wrote and posted online. He was also videotaped at a town hall meeting discussing the “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries and whether such demonstrations were possible in Ethiopia. Prosecutors said Nega’s activities and those of the other defendants violated the anti-terrorism law because they could encourage others to attempt terrorist acts. The defendants denied these charges.
In a show of support for the universal principles of freedom of expression and freedom of association, U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Booth attended several sessions of the trial and the State Department has issued statements noting concerns about both the judgments and harsh sentences.
The United States calls again on the government of Ethiopia to stop stifling the freedoms of expression and association and calls for the release of those who have been imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.