Eskinder Nega is an Ethiopian journalist and Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. He is currently serving an 18 year jail sentence for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Prior to his latest arrest Eskinder had previously been harassed, arrested and prosecuted. He has previously been an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. His most recent prosecution marks the eighth time that he has been arrested and prosecuted because of his activities as a journalist. Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, were tried on treason and other charges along with 129 other journalists, opposition politicians and civil society activities, following post-election protests in 2005. Eskinder was detained for 18 months and then acquitted and released in April 2007. Eskinder’s wife, Serkalem, gave birth to their only son, Nafkot, while she was in prison. During the period of their detention, Amnesty International considered both Eskinder and Serkalem to be prisoners of conscience.
The majority of the independent press was closed down in the wake of this crackdown. Eskinder had been denied a license to practice as a journalist since that period. He was therefore forced to write for online publications and blogs.
In February 2011 Eskinder was temporarily detained by the federal police and issued a warning to cease writing articles that the government considers to be inflammatory, or face imprisonment. Before his arrest, Eskinder had recently experienced a number of incidents which led him to believe he was at risk of physical harm. He was also under constant surveillance.
Shortly before his arrest in September, Eskinder spoke about press freedom and other topics at an event organised by an opposition party to mark the Ethiopian New Year (12 September). He also made critical remarks about the use of the Anti-Terrorism legislation to silence government critics, in reference to the arrest of well-known actor Debebe Eshetu who was arrested on 8 September on accusations of terrorism activities (Debebe Eshetu was subsequently released without charge). Eskinder also published an article to mark the New Year in which he stated ‘Maybe 2004 [Ethiopian calendar] could be the year when freedom of expression and association will be respected… maybe 2004 could be the year when Ethiopians will no more be incarcerated for their political convictions.’
He was arrested on the same day as four other men: 3 officials of the Unity for Democracy and Justice political opposition party, and the general secretary of the Ethiopian National Democratic party. All five were arrested on the accusation of involvement with the banned Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice, Freedom and Democracy. All five reportedly appeared in court on 16 September 2011 and were remanded in custody while the police carried out their investigations.
On 10 November Eskinder and seven other men were charged with a number of crimes under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Criminal Code. A further 16 opposition members, journalists, one human rights activist, and others, were charged in absentia.
On 27 June 2012, he was found guilty of charges of 'preparation or incitement to commit terrorist acts', 'participation in a terrorist organisation' and 'high treason.' Twenty-one of his fellow defendants were also found guilty on these and other charges.
On 13 July 2012 Eskinder was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.
The trial appeared to have been motivated, at least in part, by the government’s fear of popular protests breaking out. Several pieces of evidence against Eskinder centered on his discussion of whether last year's Middle East and North Africa uprisings could spread to Ethiopia. A key part of the evidence against Eskinder was an impassioned speech he made at a public meeting about Ethiopians' need to struggle peacefully for freedom.
Much of the evidence presented against him did not demonstrate criminal wrongdoing or terrorism. Instead it related to Eskinder and other defendants exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.
The trial was marred by serious irregularities, including allegations of torture made by at least one defendant, which were not investigated. Eskinder was denied access to lawyers and family members in the initial stages of his detention.
Statements by the Prime Minister and programmes aired on state TV pronouncing the guilt of the defendants violated their right to be presumed innocent and exerted significant political pressure on the court.
Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, used to convict Eskinder and the other defendants on several of the charges, enables the prosecution of legitimate and peaceful activities as ‘terrorist’ acts.
Amnesty International believes that Eskinder was arrested, prosecuted and convicted solely because of his peaceful and legitimate activities as a journalist.
In Ethiopia, the authorities routinely use criminal charges and accusations of terrorism to silence dissenters. Repression of freedom of expression has increased alarmingly in recent years. In 2009, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation became law, which contains several excessively broad provisions that can be used to criminalise the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of association. Among other concerns the law made the publication of statements likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
Evidence presented in trials and cited in the charge sheets against the defendants in Eskinder’s trial as well as other recent trials of journalists and opposition members, did not illustrate activities that amount to criminal wrongdoing or terrorism. Instead, much of the evidence presented in these cases related to the defendants exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.
Evidence has included numerous newspaper and website articles written by defendants criticising the government, communication with news outlets known to be critical of the government, articles written about the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, poems written by defendants, and even articles sent to the defendants by other people. Prosecutions and convictions on the basis of this evidence indicate that freedom of expression is being criminalised in these trials, and that peaceful opposition to the government or calls for peaceful protest are being interpreted as acts of terrorism.
Background to Ethiopia
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ruled for more than two decades. Zenawi’s government has systematically taken steps to crush dissent in the country by jailing opposition members and journalists, firing on unarmed protesters, and using state resources to undermine political opposition.
In December 2005, 131 prominent opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists, including Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil, were charged with a range of capital offences, including treason, outrages against the Constitution and incitement to armed uprising. They faced the death penalty if found guilty. The group also included Berhanu Negga, the newly elected Mayor of Addis Ababa; Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge (selected for an Amnesty International Individuals at Risk case file between 2009 and 2010, when she was released from detention); Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, founder and former president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council; and civil society activists Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie.
Eskinder’s wife Serkalem was seized by police in November 2005 for her role as co-publisher of three independent newspapers. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest and gave birth to a baby son in the police hospital, where medical care was grossly deficient. Serkalem was freed in April 2007, following campaigning by human rights organizations including Amnesty International. Her ordeal was recognized when she picked up a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Serkalem thanked Amnesty International for helping secure her release from jail by donating the money from the award to Amnesty International. Serkalem described her donation as: "A rejection of the manipulation of our national, religious and cultural differences against international human rights organizations. It is also an affirmation of the importance of the work that human rights organizations are doing… I have no doubt about the importance of Amnesty International in this story. " At least 13 newspapers shut down by the government in 2005 are still closed. Independent journalists were reportedly denied licenses to operate, although others did receive licenses.
In February 2011, Eskinder was issued a warning to cease writing articles that the government considers to be inflammatory, or face imprisonment. Eskinder was detained by heavily armed Federal Police officers on 11 February 2011 after leaving an internet cafe in central Addis Ababa. He was taken to the head office of the Federal police, where the Deputy Commissioner told Eskinder that he had been summoned for attempting to incite protests similar to those in Egypt or Tunisia. The Deputy Commissioner particularly referred to an article Eskinder had posted on a website a week previously, which praised a statement made by the Egyptian army during the recent protests in Egypt that the armed forces would not resort to the use of force against its people. The article stated that if protests did break out in Ethiopia, the army should acknowledge Ethiopians’ right to peacefully demonstrate, and should protect them. The article concluded with the following final appeal to the Ethiopian generals: “Don’t fight your conscience.” The Deputy Commissioner stated that this article was attempting to undermine the army, and warned Eskinder that if any protests took place they would hold him responsible. Eskinder was further warned that the federal police had enough to convict him, and that he had “already crossed the boundary.”
Arrest and prosecution of other journalists
Eskinder’s most recent arrest and prosecution was part of a wider clampdown on people critical of the government: other journalists have also been prosecuted because of their work and are considered by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.
In 2011, several journalists were jailed under the broad Anti-Terrorism law, including Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson. The two were arrested after they entered the country to report on the ongoing conflict in the Somali region. Schibbye and Persson were arrested in the Somali region of Ethiopia on 1 July. They had entered the region clandestinely to meet with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) which was proscribed as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government in June 2011.The journalists said that they were following a story allegedly linking a Swedish company to controversial oil exploration in the area.
Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were found guilty on charges of ‘Supporting Terrorism’ and ‘Violation of the Territorial or Political Sovereignty’ of the country through illegal entry with the intent to commit a number of prohibited acts. They were sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment.
The government chose to interpret meeting with the ONLF as support of that group and therefore a terrorist act. However, there was nothing to suggest that the two men entered Ethiopia with any intention other than conducting their legitimate work as journalists. Amnesty International believes there was no evidence that the men were supporting the objectives of the ONLF, or were guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. Amnesty International believes they were convicted on the basis of their legitimate journalistic work, and considers them to be Prisoners of Conscience.
Ethiopian journalists Reyot Alemu a columnist in the weekly Feteh newspaper and Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times weekly newspaper, were arrested in June 2011. They were charged with ‘Planning, Preparation Conspiracy, Incitement and Attempt of Terrorist Act’, ‘Participation in a Terrorist Organisation’ and ‘Money Laundering’, Amnesty International believes their arrest and prosecution was based on their legitimate activities as journalists, in criticising the government and in particular in reporting on issues around peaceful protests.
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.
Reyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye were found guilty on all three charges on 19 January 2012, and were subsequently sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. Reyot’s sentence was later reduced to five years, on appeal. Amnesty International considers Reyot and Woubshet to be Prisoners of Conscience.
In November 2011, the Awramba Times newspaper, one of the last remaining independent media voices, shut down and its editor fled the country after a smear campaign in a state-run publication and a warning of imminent arrest. The Awramba Times deputy editor was one of those journalists sentenced to lengthy prison terms in January 2012. Another journalist and at least one opposition politician also fled in November 2011 after being threatened with arrest.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed serious concern about the situation of human rights in Ethiopia. At its 51st Ordinary Session held in The Gambia from 18 April to 2 May 2012, the Commission passed a country resolution on Ethiopia “condemning” and expressing “grave concern” at a number of serious human rights concerns in the country and directing recommendations to the government of Ethiopia in relation to these issues.