Ethiopia terror convictions an ‘affront’ to free speech

The Ethiopian authorities must immediately release four government critics and a former opposition supporter who have been found guilty of terrorism charges on Thursday, Amnesty International said today.Journalists Reyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, opposition party leader Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher and former opposition supporter Hirut Kifle, were found guilty on terror and money laundering charges. Journalist Elias Kifle, now based in the US, was also found guilty in absentia. “This is an affront to freedom of expression. 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,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher.“There is no evidence that these three men and two women are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that the five are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work and peaceful activities and they should be released immediately,” she added.The five were found guilty on three charges: ‘Planning, Preparation Conspiracy, Incitement and Attempt of Terrorist Act’, Participation in a Terrorist Organisation’ and ‘Money Laundering’.Journalists Woubshet Taye, Reyot Alemu and Elias Kifle have all written articles critical of government policy and practice, while Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher, the president of the Ethiopian National Democratic Party, has written statements on behalf of his party which were critical of the government. Shortly before his arrest in June last year, the opposition leader had also requested permission to stage a political rally on 28 May in central Addis Ababa. Hirut Kifle was jailed in 2007 for alleged involvement with an armed group, while she was a supporter of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, before being released by Presidential pardon.   Much of the evidence presented by the prosecution during the trial related to the defendants exercising their right to freedom of expression and association. This included numerous articles written by defendants,and even articles sent to them by other people. A substantial proportion of the evidence against the defendants related to their reporting of, and alleged involvement in, the appearance of the slogan Beka! (“Enough!”) in locations around Addis Ababa in early 2011, as a call for peaceful protests against the government to take place on 28 May.    “This focus of the prosecution’s evidence illustrates that free expression has been criminalised in this trial, and that criticising the government is considered a crime,” said Claire Beston. The court and pre-trial proceedings were also marred by numerous fair trial concerns. Both Woubshet Taye and Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher complained in court that they were severely beaten while held at Maikelawi detention centre in Addis Ababa, which is infamous for the frequent use of torture against pre-trial detainees. No investigations into these allegations have been carried out.Woubshet Taye and Reyot Alemu were both forced to reveal their e-mail passwords during interrogation in Maikelawi. Contents of the e-mail accounts were presented as evidence against them in court. Woubshet Taye also complained that e-mails from his account had been changed, and some were falsely interpreted. Reyot, Woubshet and Zerihun were denied access to family members for the first month of their detention in Maikelawi and were held in isolation cells during the initial stages of their detention. Hirut Kifle was reportedly denied access to family members for three months when she was first detained. In October, Woubshet Taye and Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher were informed that their visiting arrangements had changed. Since then, visitors have only been permitted to visit the two men for ten minutes per day.Since March 2011 at least 107 opposition party members and journalists have been arrested and charged with various offences under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Criminal Code. Last month two Swedish journalists were convicted of terrorism offences and sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment.