In Ethiopia, High Court sentences six journalists to prison, four to life

New York, July 16, 2007—Ethiopia’s High Court today handed down harsh criminal penalties, including life prison sentences, against six journalists and three publishers on anti-state charges in connection with critical coverage of the government during the deadly unrest in the aftermath of disputed parliamentary elections in 2005, according to local journalists.

At least 200 people packed the courtroom in the capital, Addis Ababa, as editors Andualem Ayele of Ethiop, Zelalem Gebre of Menelik, Mesfin Tesfaye of Abay, and Abiy Gizaw of Netsanet were handed life prison sentences and stripped of all civic rights forever, according to defense lawyer Weneawake Ayele. The prosecution last week had requested the death penalty for Tesfaye and Ayele, according to news reports. Gebre and Gizaw were sentenced in absentia.

“Receiving a life sentence for criticizing the government is not only outrageous but galling,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “These severe penalties are out of step with international norms and undermine the democratic credentials of Ethiopia’s government.”

More than 190 people were killed and dozens of opposition leaders and 14 journalists were put on official “wanted lists,” then jailed, when authorities crushed post-election protests alleging poll-rigging by the ruling party in November 2005, following the May elections. The journalists and publishers sentenced today on “outrages against the constitutional order” charges had all produced Amharic-language weeklies that were shuttered in the crackdown. Before 2005, more than 20 newspapers flourished in the country. Today, only five publish under intense self-censorship.

Meanwhile, editor Wenakseged Zeleke of Asqual was sentenced to three years in prison, and deputy editor Dawit Fassil of Satanaw to 18 months in prison, according to Ayele. The court also ordered the civic rights of the journalists suspended for five years. Fassil, who had been released on bail in April after 16 months in prison on charges of “inciting the public through false rumors,” was returned, along with the other defendants, to Kality prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, according to local journalists.

Fassil’s publisher, Serkalem Publishing House, which is also publisher of Asqual and Menelik newspapers, and Sisay Publishing and Advertising Enterprise, publisher of Ethiop, were ordered dissolved and fined respectively 120,000 birr (US$13,500) and 100,000 birr (US$11,000) on related charges of committing or supporting outrages to the constitutional order, Ayele said. A third publisher, Fasil, which put out the Addis Zena newspaper, was fined 15,000 birr (US$1,700).

The journalists and publishers, who were sentenced today along with more than 20 opposition leaders, “could” appeal the sentences with Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court, Ayele told CPJ. But Information Minister Bereket Simon told the BBC the defendants had “admitted” to attempting to violently overthrow the government and had “asked for clemency.”

Following the sentencing today, state television reported that a plea for clemency had been submitted to the prime minister’s office, according to local journalists. The statement, bearing the signatures of all the defendants, including journalists, accepted full responsibility for the post-election violence, they said.

Two other editors, Wosonseged Gebrekidan of Addis Zena and Dawit Kebede of Hadar, jailed since November 2005, were still on trial on related charges, but did not risk life imprisonment or death, according to local journalists.

“Sadly, this is just the latest example of the authorities’ ongoing repression of the independent press which led CPJ to this year name Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom,” Simon said.