Nairobi, July 13, 2012--An Ethiopian court today handed down heavy prison sentences to six journalists convicted on vague terrorism charges, local journalists and news reports said. Award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega got an 18-year term; the others live in exile and were sentenced in absentia.
"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," presiding Judge Endeshaw Adane told a packed courtroom at the Lideta Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, as he issued sentences for 24 defendants, including the journalists, convicted of involvement in a vague terror plot, according to wire reports.
The judge accused veteran journalist Eskinder of participating in a terrorist organization, planning a terrorist act, and "working with the Ginbot 7 organization," a U.S.-based opposition group that the Ethiopian government formally designated a terrorist entity in 2011. The judge also accused Eskinder of wanting to incite anti-government protests in Ethiopia with online articles discussing the Arab Spring. Authorities have detained Eskinder at least eight times during Meles Zenawi's two decades as prime minister, according to CPJ research.
Exiled journalists Mesfin Negash and Abiye Teklemariam received eight years each based on accusations of making information about Ginbot 7 available to Ethiopians through their news website, Addis Neger Online.
Abebe Gellaw of the U.S.-based Addis Voice and Abebe Belew of U.S.-based Internet radio station Addis Dimts were each sentenced in absentia to 15 years, and Fasil Yenealem got a life sentence, based on their activities with pro-opposition exiled broadcaster Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), which government prosecutors described in court documents as "the voice of the terrorist organization Ginbot 7."
All of the journalists have professed their innocence, according to news reports. Violations of fundamental principles of fairness, such as the presumption of innocence, undermined the credibility of the trial, according to legal experts and CPJ research.
Defense lawyer Abebe Guta told Agence France-Presse the defense would appeal.
"The harsh sentences handed down to Eskinder and five other journalists on baseless terrorism charges tell the rest of the press corps that critical coverage of the government is an act of terrorism," said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. "The international community should rebuke Ethiopia for using the cover of terrorism to deny its citizens the fundamental right to free expression."
The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, three U.N. special rapporteurs, the U.S. State Department, members of the U.S. Senate , and the European Union have expressed concern at Ethiopia's use of its far-reaching antiterrorism law to criminalize fundamental rights guaranteed under the Ethiopian constitution.
Fasil, who has continued to practice journalism from exile, had already been sentenced in absentia to life in prison in 2009 on anti-state charges based on his affiliation with Ginbot 7. "For the second time, I am sentenced to life in prison. What can I say about this verdict? Do I have two souls to serve both sentences on earth, or is the latest one reserved for the other world?" he told CPJ today.
"The central goal of the charge is cutting us from our home and warning journalists and other critical voices to remain silent," Mesfin told CPJ.