By Naomi Hunt
VIENNA (IPI) — The International Press Institute, a global network of publishers, editors and leading journalists, today condemned the conviction of three Ethiopian journalists on terrorism-related charges.
Those convicted were Reyot Alemu of Feteh newspaper; Wubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times; and Elias Kifle, chief editor of the United States-based Ethiopian Review. Two members of the political opposition were also convicted. Sentencing is scheduled for 26 January, and all five could face the death penalty, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
Alemu and Taye were first arrested in June 2011, and accused of conspiring to destroy power and phone lines, officials told the media at the time. The pair have subsequently claimed that they have been beaten and tortured in detention, according to Human Rights Watch, which has said that the journalists’ trial raised “serious due process concerns,” including the fact that none were given access to legal counsel during pre-trial detention.
According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, most of the evidence against the journalists was based on their online writings, critical articles that they received, and for calling for protest against the government.
“We are horrified by the conviction of Reyot Alemu, Wubshet Taye and Elias Kifle. It is unacceptable and a violation of every democratic principle that journalists – no matter how critical – face years in prison or even the death penalty as a result of their work,” said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. “Criticism is not terrorism. The case against these journalists, as well as Eskinder Nega must be dropped immediately, and all of the journalists currently in Ethiopian prisons must be freed.”
This is the second time that Kifle has been sentenced in absentia, reports say. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison in 2007, though he was outside the country at the time. The English and Amharic language Ethiopian Review is extremely critical of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government, and is blocked in Ethiopia.
Vocal government critic Eskinder Nega was arrested in September 2011 and remains in custody and on trial, also for alleged terror-related activities and inciting the public against the government, reports say. If convicted, he too could face the death penalty. This is not the first time that Nega has gone to jail for his work as a journalist. Nega, along with his wife Serkalem Fasil, was arrested on treason charges in 2005 and served months in prison before being released in 2007. Their son was born in jail.
Last month, Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were sentenced to 11 years in prison for “supporting terrorism,” a charge laid on them after they were captured while travelling with an insurgent group in the Ogaden region. The pair has since said they will not appeal the sentence, and are instead hoping to be pardoned.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has come under fire in this case for his failure to put more pressure on Ethiopian allies; journalists have subsequently alleged that he has significant connections to companies with major business interests in Ethiopia’s disputed Ogaden region.
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