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Ethiopia: Journalists and Politician Sentenced on Terrorism Charges

(Feb. 1, 2012) On January 26, 2012, a court in Ethiopia sentenced five people to terms in prison varying from 14 years to, in one case, life, on charges of terrorism. They were convicted of taking part in a terrorist organization and planning an act of terrorism. According to the prosecution, the punishments were “according to criminal law and the anti-terror proclamation.” (Ethiopian Court Jails Journalists, Opposition Leader, AFP (Jan. 26, 2012), World News Connection online, subscription database, Doc. No. 201201261477.1_809100503869545e.)

Three of the defendants were journalists and one was an opposition political leader. Among those sentenced were Woubshet Taye, editor-in-chief of the former publication Awramba Times, and Reeyot Alemu, a prominent columnist, who were each given 14-year terms of imprisonment. Elias Kifle, a journalist based in the United States who runs the online publication Ethiopian Review, was given a life sentence in absentia. Hirut Kifle, charged with being an associate of Elias Kifle, received a 19-year sentence. Zerahun Gebrezabier, an opposition leader, was given a term of 17 years' imprisonment. (Id.)

Alemu Gobebo Reeyot, father of one of those sentenced, disputed the outcome of the case, stating, “[t]he conviction was not fair, it was not according to the law or the defences submitted to the court.” (Id.)

Human rights groups have protested the convictions and called for the release of the five men. Amnesty International (AI) researcher Claire Beston stated, “[t]here is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” and added, “[w]e believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.” (Id.)

Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 has itself been criticized as vague and over-reaching. It punishes “encouragement of terrorism” with prison terms of 10 to 20 years. According to Human Rights Watch and AI, “critics of government such as journalists and political opponents could be charged for encouraging terrorism.” (Ethiopia: Stop Using Anti-Terror Law to Stifle Peaceful Dissent, Human Rights Watch website (Nov. 21, 2011); see also Hanibal Goitom, Ethiopia: Terrorism Law Drafted, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (June 4, 2009).)

The conviction of the journalists and the opposition figure follows several similar cases in recent months, affecting about 100 individuals from March through September 2011. On September 14, 2011, according to AI, a journalist and four opposition leaders were arrested, also charged with terrorism-related crimes. (Ethiopia Must End Crackdown on Government Critics, AI website (Sept. 16, 2011).) Then in December 2011, two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, were convicted of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally in order to commit crimes. AI is of the opinion that they were convicted on the basis of their “legitimate journalistic work,” and called for their immediate release. (Swedish Journalists Must Be Released Immediately and Unconditionally, AI website (Dec. 21, 2011).)

Speaking about what human rights advocates see as a pattern of the use of anti-terror legislation to silence criticism, Beston said, “[t]his wave of arrests and prosecutions constitutes an assault on freedom of expression by a government determined to gag the reporting of stories it doesn't want told.” (Id.; see also DISMANTLING DISSENT: INTENSIFIED CRACKDOWN ON FREE SPEECH IN ETHIOPIA (Dec. 2011), AI website.)