Authorities in Ethiopia describe Eskinder Nega, a prominent columnist and government critic jailed since September 2011 on vague terrorism charges, as a dangerous individual bent on violent revolution. However, in an opinion handed down in 2012–publicized only this week by Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group Freedom Now–a United Nations panel of five independent experts ruled that Eskinder’s imprisonment came “as a result of his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”
The opinion from the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was issued after a judge in Addis Ababa sentenced Eskinder to 18 years in prison in July 2012, accusing him of writing “articles that incited the public to bring the North African and Arab uprisings to Ethiopia.” In the opinion, the experts detailed several breaches of Eskinder’s rights, from his arrest without warrant and allegations of mistreatment in pre-trial detention, to a flawed prosecution and trial that fell short of international standards of fairness.
“It is our sincere hope that the government will look closely at the opinion and come to the same conclusion as the Working Group,” Patrick Griffith, an attorney with Freedom Now, told me. “The opinion here is especially well-reasoned and clearly explains why the continued detention of Eskinder is a violation of international law; it is now up to the government to do the right thing and release him.”
The opinion, however, is not binding, and Ethiopian authorities have a notoriously tough hide when it comes to international criticism of their human rights record–despite being major recipients of Western aid. Griffith is still optimistic, saying: “Pressure can have an impact on the ground; the release of political prisoners in 2007 (following mass arrests in 2005) and the release of the Swedish journalists last year came after considerable international attention–so there is hope.” Griffith says Freedom Now will urge governments, especially that of the United States, to more forcefully insist on Eskinder’s release. Griffith also hopes that by vigorously pursuing Eskinder’s case, the group can train more global attention on other Ethiopian journalists in prison. There are currently six journalists behind bars, some without charge.
Prior to his arrest, Eskinder had criticized authorities for carrying out such practices, claiming that the government used a sweeping anti-terror law to scare critics of the ruling party into silence. “In the well-publicized applications of the dreaded anti-terrorism law lies the perfect means to stretch fear to its furthest limit. Raw fear is in the air. And journalists have been affected the most,” Eskinder wrote in a July 2011 column entitled “SOS: Dissent and terrorism in Ethiopia.”
As a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Ethiopia should comply with international law and release Eskinder immediately and unconditionally.