Ethiopia: Terrorism verdict quashes free speech – Human Rights Watch (HRW)

January 22nd, 2012 Print Print Email Email

The Ethiopian Federal High Court on January 19, 2012, convicted three Ethiopian journalists, an opposition leader, and a fifth person under an anti-terrorism law that violates free expression and due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The Ethiopian government should immediately drop the case, release the defendants, and investigate their allegations of torture in detention.

The journalists are Woubshet Taye Abebe of the now-closed weekly newspaper Awramba Times, Reeyot Alemu Gobebo of the weekly newspaper Feteh, and Elias Kifle, editor of the online Ethiopian Review, who was tried in absentia. An opposition leader, Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher Tadesse of the Ethiopian National Democratic Party, and a woman named Hirut Kifle Woldeyesus were also convicted. All five were convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life imprisonment or death, as well as of participating in a terrorist organization. They were also convicted of money laundering under the Ethiopian criminal code. Their sentencing is expected on January 26.

“The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent,” said Leslie Lefkow, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt.”

The case was marred by serious due process concerns. The defendants had no access to legal counsel during their three months in pretrial detention, and the court did not investigate their allegations of torture and mistreatment in detention.

Public comments by government officials have undermined the defendants’ presumption of innocence. A government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview in September that Reeyot and Woubshet had been involved in planning terrorist acts. In October Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Ethiopian parliament that the authorities had conclusive evidence that the journalists and political opposition members arrested under the law were guilty of terrorism.

Both Woubshet and Zerihun alleged in court that they had been tortured, including being beaten, and mistreated during their pretrial detention at Addis Ababa’s notorious Maekelawi prison. None of the defendants were granted access to legal counsel during their pretrial detention. Local sources told Human Rights Watch that these complaints of mistreatment have not been investigated by the court.

Families and friends of the defendants have been granted visiting rights at Kaliti, where the defendants were transferred once the trial started in September 2011.

The evidence submitted by the prosecution only emphasizes the government’s political motivations behind the prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch examined, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused. Two individuals attending the trial told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution put forward no evidence of involvement in terrorist acts.

“Getting a fair trial in a political case in Ethiopia today may be impossible,” Lefkow said. “The prosecution should drop the charges against these defendants and instead investigate their allegations of torture.”

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised serious concerns about Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009, including its overly broad definition of “terrorist acts,” which can include acts of peaceful protest that result in the “disruption of any public services”. The law also includes vague provisions that proscribe support for, or encouragement of, terrorism, which can include public reporting on banned terrorist groups.

The provision on pretrial detention allows suspects to be held in custody for up to four months without charge, one of the longest periods in anti-terrorism legislation worldwide. The provision violates due process rights guaranteed under Ethiopian law and international law, Human Rights Watch said.

The ruling comes one month after two Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of “rendering support to terrorism,” based on their having illegally entered Ethiopia to investigate and report on abuses in the Ogaden area. Since June 2011, at least two other people have been convicted under the law and 24 others have been charged, including six other journalists and three opposition party members.

“Within the space of a month five journalists and one political opposition leader have been sentenced under ludicrous provisions in Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law,” Lefkow said. “The worst provisions in the law should be immediately amended to prevent further abuse and ensure that the law conforms to international standards.”

For more information on the trial and Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law, please visit:

  1. Sam
    | #1

    There is no suprise here. Their being convicted is a foregone conclusion. The court is there to validate the government’s accusation. To believe otherwise is to not know how EPDRF rules. That is indeed an inexcusable ignorance of Ethiopian politics. The judges in most cases, if not in all cases, are political appointees. Just imagine for a second. Univeristy students are being recruited to be EPRF members so that they will at least being guaranteed they will secure employment after graduation. This is a true statment. If this is the case how could one imagine Ethiopia having impartial judges to see this political case? Indeed it is impossible to have impartial judges. Imagine another case. The most significant employer in Ethiopia is the government. The judges know this hard fact. If they found themselves to be in the black list of the government, their very survival would be in question. So even some judges despite being EPDRF members if they are compelled to do the right thing by therir conciences they might consider their finacial future. They know their family will be ruined finacially if they choose to step aside from the marching band of the EPDRF’s cadres. To add to this dillema, the very miniscule employers of the private sectors would have a hard time hiring judges who acquired the enemity of the government. So you ask why do Ethiopia have judges to begin with? Well, in non-political cases some might try to be impartial because the government has a little stake at the outcome of any judgment. But here the judges are trying to mitigate the economic woes the EPDRF’s policy impose on the nation as the whole by sccumbing to corruption. Indeed if I say today Ethiopian judges are the most corrupt, I do not stretch the truth. In Ethiopia you can live peacfully without being thrown to jail for political reason. That is indeed true. But you have to be an Ethiopian with no interset in what is going on in Ethiopia. You have to be an Ethiopan with no informed outlook about the country and its politicians. If you are that person, you are really free to live. Watch out if you are a person who values the future of the country and willing to task the EPDRF’s politicos about the correctness of the path they chose for the country. If you have that conscience you are in prison by the virtue of being an Ethiopian and living in Ethiopia. But that might not satisfy EPDRF politicos. They will throw you to the smallest prison as if you were not in prison to begin with.

  2. Gigi
    | #2

    Going against the TPLF or EPRDF is being a terrorist? How? How long are they planing on staying on power?

    That sounds like for ever. Even if this people are engaged in arm straggle, they can call it war prisoners not terrorists.
    This is very wrong. We all remember what the Sheabia and TPLF was doing to over thro Mengistu. That is destroying
    Brig’s and exploding people while using hotel and restaurant bath rooms and so on. And that was taken as an act of war
    Not as act of terrorism by all party’s. And what kind of terrorism is not war by the way??????. What is their definishine
    Of it? Some thing worse? May be, because the terrorists use civilians for their agenda by killing civilians and that is really bad. And is a war crime in every sense. But this journalists are said to be trying to cut telephone communication,
    And targeted government property, and so on and that is not using the civilian like terrorists or the TPLFs yesterday
    And today.

    And that is even if it is true. The people that said they are involved in arm straggle could even be working for the government to infeltirete the opposition comp and to dismantle it for ever. Not to tell them what to do with their own
    Hors, but can’t we see that abused hors? May be we should report it to people of animal rights kind then……no,

    It just is a human rights issue.

  3. Gigi
    | #3

    By the way even if the a ligations are true or some how true, it is an allegation based on some thing they didn’t commit as far as my understanding.

    Freedom to Ethiopia!!!!!!!!!
    Free all political prisoners!!!!!!!!!!,

  4. Gigi
    | #4

    You know what is so funny to me, light goes out every day on people. And we all know it use to be even worse. And most of Theo time if you don’t have electric light or power you don’t have a phone or Internet either so what are we talking about?

    Isn’t it blaming their job on some body els? Which they have been doing the last four or five years? What a jock!

    Free all political prisoners and journalists!!!!!!!
    Ethiopia to all Ethiopians!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Gigi
    | #5

    This is a job by the government to blind 80 million people about its colonization, robbery, degradation, manipulation,
    And mutilation of our nation.

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