From left: Woubshet, Reeyot, Kifle.
From left: Woubshet, Alemu, and Kifle.

Ethiopian blogger, journalists convicted of terrorism

New York, January 19, 2012–Two journalists and a U.S.-based blogger who was tried in absentia were convicted on charges of terrorism in Ethiopia today and could be sentenced to the death penalty, according to news reports.

Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with the independent weekly Feteh, Deputy Editor Woubshet Taye of the now-defunct weekly Awramba Times, and Elias Kifle, exiled editor of the Washington-based opposition website Ethiopian Review, were convicted today in Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, according to news reports.

The journalists were charged in September with lending support to an underground network of banned opposition groups, including Ginbot 7, that the government had designated terrorists, according to CPJ research. In the trial, government prosecutors presented as evidence intercepted emails and phone calls between the journalists, as well as more than 25 Ethiopian Review articles and postings on the activities of the opposition groups and calls for an Arab-style popular uprising, CPJ research shows.

All of the journalists had written articles critical of the Ethiopian government. Taye’s newspaper, the Awramba Times, was the target of a smear campaign by state media for raising questions about government policies, CPJ research shows. Alemu wrote columns criticizing the ruling party’s policies, including its five-year growth and transformation plan, according to news reports. She also compared Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, CPJ research shows. Kifle was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in 2007 on charges of treason over critical online coverage of the government’s brutal repression of the 2005 post-election protests, according to CPJ research.

Judge Endeshaw Adane of the third criminal bench of the Federal High Court is expected to sentence the journalists on January 26, news reports said. The journalists could face the death penalty, according to news reports. Since 1992, only two people have been executed after being handed the death penalty, while other death sentences have been commuted to life in prison, according to an Ethiopian legal expert.

“The Ethiopian government has a long-standing practice of using umbrella charges of terrorism to silence critical voices,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “These acts are part of a pattern to punish the Ethiopian press for their journalistic work.”

Alemu and Taye were arrested in June and held for weeks on government accusations of plotting to sabotage telephone and electricity lines. In September, they were charged under the country’s far-reaching anti-terrorism law without their lawyers present, CPJ research shows. Six other Ethiopian bloggers and online journalists were charged with terrorism in November, according to CPJ research, with only Eskinder Nega currently in custody.

Last month, two jailed Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years in prison on terrorism charges.