ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s federal court on Friday sentenced a prominent dissident blogger and 23 other opposition activists to long prison terms on terror charges, in a ruling that critics decried as politically motivated. Prominent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who received a prestigious press freedom award from PEN America in May, was sentenced by the court to 18 years in prison.
“The Ethiopian government clearly means to send a signal to its people: speak against us, and you, too, could be jailed as a terrorist,” PEN America head Peter Godwin said in a statement, calling for Eskinder’s immediate and unconditional release. He urged the United States and other donor nations to reevaluate their cooperation with Ethiopia’s government in light of those sentences.
Also sentenced were the deputy leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice opposition party Andualem Arage, who was handed a life sentence, and his fellow party member Natnael Mekonnen, who got 18 years behind bars.
The three were among 24 people found guilty on terror charges last month, though critics said the government was using anti-terrorism laws to silence legitimate political dissent. Most of those convicted in June live in exile, though Eskinder and the two opposition leaders are in Ethiopian custody.
Among those sentenced are leaders of the so-called Ginbot 7 movement, which is based in the United States. The group vows to use “any means” to topple Ethiopia’s ruling party, and Ethiopia’s parliament classified the group as a terrorist organization. The United States has not labeled the group as such. Ethiopia typically takes a hard line on domestic security matters which critics maintain limits the freedom of expression.
“This sentence makes clear that Ethiopia’s growth and stability is dependent on an iron fist from a leadership intolerant of critical reporting or journalists seeking public accountability,” said Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Amnesty International said the trial fell short of international standards and the group called on the government to release or retry the activists. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi insists the trials were appropriately based on the country’s anti-terrorism law.
CPJ says that since 2011 the Ethiopian government has convicted 11 independent journalists and bloggers under a sweeping anti-terrorism law. Among those jailed are two Swedes who are serving an 11 year prison term after the pair illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group.