Ethiopian authorities arrested Darsema Sori, from the faith-based Radio Bilal, alongside his colleague, Khalid Mohammed, on February 18, 2015, after police called them in for questioning, local journalists said. On August 17, 2015, authorities charged Darsema and Khalid, along with 18 other defendants, of inciting extremist ideology and planning to overthrow the government and replace it with an Islamic government under the 2009 anti-terrorism law, according to news reports that cited the charge sheet.
Darsema worked as senior editor at Radio Bilal, local journalists said. Darsema had also been a columnist for the now-defunct Ye Muslimoch Guday (“Muslim Affairs”) magazine, local journalists told CPJ. The magazine ceased publishing in July 2012 after two of its editors went into hiding, local journalists said.
Darsema and Khalid extensively covered protests by the Ethiopian Muslim community that began in 2012 to condemn government interference in Islamic affairs, including the government closing of Awoliya College, the country’s only Muslim college, in 2011. Authorities claimed the institution was training Islamic radicals, according to news reports. Ethiopian authorities have since sought to silence the demonstrations by arresting protesters, community leaders, and independent reporters, and by shutting down news outlets, according to international news reports and CPJ research.
In December 2016, the High Court’s 19th Criminal Bench convicted Darsema and Khalid on terrorism charges, according to the independently owned news website Addis Standard. On January 3, 2017, the High Court sentenced the co-defendants, with the exception of Darsema, to five years and six months in prison, while Darsema was sentenced to four years and five months, according to Addis Standard.
In a letter he wrote from Kilinto prison that the Addis Standard republished, Darsema Sori said that his sentence was one year shorter due to his “deteriorating health condition.” A fire at Kilinto in September 2016 had aggravated Darsema’s pre-existing asthma, according to Belay Manaye, an Addis based journalist, and Abdurahim Ahmed, an Ethiopian journalist in exile in South Africa who has been following the case. In October 2017, journalists told CPJ that Darsema had since received treatment and was in better health.
In the letter, Darsema also criticized the trial that led to his conviction, and said that at least 14 judges had presided over the trial. The defendants, Darsema wrote in the letter, faced “torture and violent interrogation,” but decided not to mount a defense after realizing that it “would do nothing” except lengthen their time at the Kilinto’s remand center in Addis Ababa.
Darsema was moved to Kality prison in early 2017 where he is serving out his sentence; Khalid is in Ziway Prison, Befekadu Hailu, an Ethiopian journalist and blogger, and Soleyana Gebremichael, project coordinator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Project, told CPJ. Befekadu told CPJ that ordinarily prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years are typically sent to Shoarobit prison, but Kality is the only facility with a federal prison hospital.
Authorities have previously imprisoned Darsema and Khalid. On August 2, 2013, they were arrested and held without charge for almost five months. Although no reason was provided, former Radio Bilal Chairman Mohammed Hassen said he believed the journalists were arrested for their extensive coverage of and support for the Muslim protests.
CPJ called and emailed Ethiopia Information Minister Negeri Lencho and called government spokesperson Mohamed Seid on multiple occasions in September and October 2017 for comment on this and other cases of imprisoned journalists. The minister and spokesperson did not answer nor reply to text messages