Five Ethiopian opposition activists, including two journalists and a U.S.-based blogger tried in absentia, may face the death penalty after being convicted of terrorism-related charges, according to news reports.
Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with the independent weekly Feteh, deputy editor Woubshet Taye of the Awramba Times,* and Elias Kifle, Washington-based editor of the Ethiopian Review opposition website, were convicted in the Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The verdict drew fierce criticism from human rights and media groups.
“This is an affront to freedom of expression,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher. “The convictions are yet another sign that individuals who hold different opinions, represent different political parties or attempt to provide independent commentary on political developments, are no longer tolerated in Ethiopia.”
At least 107 opposition party members, civil society activists and journalists have been arrested and charged with offences under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Criminal Code over the past years. Last month a court sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years’ imprisonment for terrorist activities.
“The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent,” said Leslie Lefkow, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt.”
Ethiopia is rated as Not Free by Freedom House, the rights and democracy watchdog, registering a 14-point decline over the past year, according to the group’s newly-released Freedom in the World 2012 survey.
“Ethiopia continued a decade-long trend of growing authoritarianism, with the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi making increased use of antiterrorism laws against the political opposition and journalists,” the report notes.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists:
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.
“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.”
The regime is also coming under fire for forcibly resettling“tens of thousands of indigenous people” in the western Gambella region without consultation or compensation, according to Human Rights Watch.
The relocations caused by the government’s “villagization” program have been marked by “threats and assaults, and arbitrary arrest for those who resist the move,” according to a new report, titled ‘Waiting Here for Death.’ “The state security forces enforcing the population transfers have been implicated in at least 20 rapes in the past year.”
The government has denied the clearances are to make way for large-scale land-leasing for commercial agriculture. But between 2008 and last January, the report notes, Ethiopia leased out at least 9.5 million acres of land to foreign investors and officials have approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007.
Some reports estimate that Asian and Middle East investors have purchased 560 million acres of farmland in developing countries, at rates of less than $1 a hectare.
“There’s a new scramble for land in Africa and it’s growing at an incredible rate,” says Alex Wijeratna of the U.K. development agency Action Aid. “There’s massive secrecy and poor communities can’t get information and they’re not being consulted.”
*The Awramba Times is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.