New York, January 26, 2012–A U.S.-based journalist convicted on politicized terrorism charges in Ethiopia was sentenced to life in prison in absentia today, while two other Ethiopian journalists received heavy prison sentences in connection with their coverage of banned opposition groups, according to news reports.
Elias Kifle, exiled Ethiopian editor of the Washington-based opposition website Ethiopian Review, was handed a life sentence in absentia today, which followed a 2007 life sentence given to him also in absentia on charges of treason for his coverage of the government’s brutal repression of 2005 post-election protests, CPJ research shows. A court in the capital, Addis Ababa, sentenced Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with the independent weekly Feteh, and Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct weekly Awramba Times, to 14 years in prison and 33,000 birrs (US$1,500), news reports said.
“The life sentence for Elias Kifle and the prison sentences for Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye are based on their writings about political dissent. This verdict has little to do with justice,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We condemn this politicized prosecution designed to cow critical voices into silence and call on the Supreme Court to reverse all the convictions.”
The three journalists were charged in September with lending support to an underground network of banned opposition groups, which has been criminalized under the country’s 2009 antiterrorism law. Alemu and Taye were arrested in June and held for weeks on government accusations of plotting to sabotage telephone and electricity lines before they were charged. 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 on the activities of opposition groups, CPJ research shows.
Eskinder Nega, another Ethiopian blogger, has been imprisoned since September and could be sentenced to death if convicted of similar politicized terrorism charges in connection with his coverage of banned opposition groups.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The headline and text of the alert was changed to reflect that the U.S.-based blogger was given a life sentence, not the death penalty.
January 27, 2012
Peter Heinlein | Addis Ababa
An Ethiopian court on Thursday sentenced three journalists and two opposition political activists to long prison sentences for terrorism-related offenses.
Exiled internet blogger Elias Kifle was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. Kifle is editor of the U.S.-based Ethiopian Review website, which regularly features scathing criticisms of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government.
A three-judge federal panel last week convicted Kifle, two local newspaper journalists and two political activists of violating Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. The charges included conspiring with the Ginbot Seven opposition political party, which Ethiopia considers a terrorist organization.
The two local journalists – Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye – received 14-year sentences. Reeyot was a columnist for Fiteh, Ethiopia’s only remaining independent newspaper devoted to politics. Woubshet was deputy editor of the Awramba Times paper. The paper stopped publishing and editor Dawit Kebede fled into exile after Woubshet’s arrest.
Reeyot’s attorney, Molla Zegeye, says he is disappointed by the harshness of the sentence against his client, given that no terrorist acts were committed.
“I didn’t expect this sentence. I didn’t,” he said. “It was an attempt. She didn’t commit the terrorist crime. She didn’t as far as I’m concerned. She’s a journalist, a professional journalist. Well, it shouldn’t be like this.”
At the trial, prosecutors presented emails and other documents as evidence that Woubshet and Reeyot were conspiring to organize acts of terrorism.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement Thursday saying that the convictions were based on their writings about political dissent. The organization says that at least 10 journalists are in Ethiopian jails, including two Swedes who recently were sentenced to 11 years in prison on terrorism-related charges. The Swedes were arrested last June in the restive Ogaden region in the company of armed members of an outlawed rebel group.
After the conviction, the Swedish government issued a statement saying that it considers the pair legitimate journalists, and called for their prompt release. An Ethiopian spokesman said the government has no remorse about the convictions.
Another Ethiopian blogger, Eskinder Nega, is facing similar terrorism charges and could face the death penalty, if convicted. He is among 24 defendants, including several exiled journalists and two prominent opposition politicians who are also accused of involvement with the outlawed Ginbot Seven group.
Government spokesmen repeatedly have rejected charges that Ethiopia restricts press freedom. Government officials say the convicted journalists used their profession as a cover for terrorist activities.