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Ethiopia: Federal Court Imposes Harsh Sentences on Journalists, Opposition Members

(July 17, 2012) On July 13, 2012, the Ethiopian Federal Court handed down severe sentences, ranging from eight years to life imprisonment, against 20 journalists and opposition figures. (Aaron Maasho, Update 3-Ethiopia Jails Blogger, Reporters, Opposition Figures, REUTERS (July 13, 2012)). Among the convicted were an award-winning journalist, Eskinder Nega, who was sentenced to an 18-year prison term, and Andualem Arange, a member of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, sentenced to life in prison. (Id.) The Court convicted these individuals last month under provisions of the 2009 anti-terrorism law (Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, Proclamation No. 652/2009, 57 FEDERAL NEGARIT GAZETA OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF ETHIOPIA (Aug. 28, 2009), ETHIOPIAN LEGAL BRIEF), bringing the total number of convictions under this law to 34. (Terrorism Law Used to Crush Free Speech, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH [HRW] (June 27, 2012).)

International Outcry

The Ethiopian government is being widely criticized for using the anti-terrorism law to silence legitimate dissent. Following the conviction of these individuals, the United States Department of State issued a statement expressing deep concern about, among other issues, the “sanctity of Ethiopians' constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.” (Ethiopia: U.S. State Dept. on Ethiopian Court's Conviction of Eskinder Nega, ALLAFRICA.COM (June 27, 2012))

HRW, which described the charges as politically motivated, called on the Ethiopian government to repeal the provisions of the anti-terrorism law, which it said is being “used to criminalize free expression and peaceful dissent.” (HRW, supra.) The organization's Deputy Director, African Division, Leslie Lefkow, had this to say: This case shows that Ethiopia's government will not tolerate even the mildest criticism. … The use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law. (Id.)

In a press statement it released, the PEN American Center (an organization devoted to protecting free expression; see About PEN (last visited July 13, 2012)) expressed its anger over the conviction and long sentence imposed on Nega and called on the “United States and other donor nations to reevaluate their relationships with the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.” (PEN America Center, PEN Decries Harsh Sentencing of Eskinder Nega (July 13, 2012).)

The Anti-Terrorism Law

A major concern articulated about the anti-terrorism law is the vague nature of its provisions. One of them, for example, makes “encouragement of terrorism” an offense punishable with imprisonment of up to 20 years. . A person commits an offense under this provision if s/he:

publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism … . (Anti-Terrorism Proclamation § 6, supra.)

According to HRW, the broad and vague nature of this and other provisions in the law violates a key criminal law principle, the principle of legality (HRW, supra.) This principle requires the state to clearly define acts that constitute a crime before anyone can be held responsible for their commission; in doing so, it aims to eliminate, or reduce, the potential for abuse. (Iulia Crisan, The Principles of Legality “Nullum Crimen, Nulla Poena Sine Lege” and Their Role, EFFECTIUS (2010).)

This principle is incorporated in the current Ethiopian Criminal Code. It provides that criminal law should specify crimes and penalties, that courts cannot punish acts not prohibited by law, and that a court may not create crimes by analogy. (The Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (2004), art. 2, Ethiopian Federal Courts website.) The anti-terrorism law makes the Criminal Code applicable only to the extent that the Code is consistent with the anti-terrorism law provisions (Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, § 36, supra). This effectively suspends the principle of legality.