An Ethiopian court sentenced on Friday Getachew Shiferaw, editor of the newspaper turned news website Negere Ethiopia to a year and half in jail for inciting subversion. The day before the former opposition spokesperson Yonathan Tesaye was sentenced to more than six years in jail for encouraging terrorism in Facebook posts.
Getachew has already served the year and a half to which he is sentenced. He was convicted under articles 257 A and D of the Ethiopian penal code for inciting others to obstruct government officials from conducting their administrative duties.
The sentenced was based on an exchange of private messages Getachew allegedly had on Facebook with a US-based journalist and activist, according to his lawyer Amha Mekonen.
After his arrest in December 2015, at the onset of anti-government protests that would plague the Ethiopia’s two largest regional states in the following months, Getachew’s trial was repeatedly postponed until he was finally charged under the country’s anti-terrorism law.
The charge was later changed into inciting subversion for which he was found guilty. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) rejected the conviction and urged Ethiopian authorities to allow journalists to work without interference instead.
“That prosecutors struggled to find a charge to levy against Getachew Shiferaw shows that Ethiopian authorities are desperate to lock journalists away,” says CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. And it “makes a mockery of this conviction.”
Yonathan Tesaye, for his part, was an ex-spokesperson for the opposition Blue Party. He was also arrested in December 2015 but he had to wait until May 2016 to be charged with encouraging terrorism on his posts on Facebook. Yonathan criticized the government for its handling of the protests that were erupting in Oromiya, the largest regional state.
In one of his comments he accused the security forces of relying too much on excessive force instead of dialogue, according to the AFP news agency. His lawyer argued Yonathan was merely exercising his right of expression.
However, “the defendant has acted in way that threatened the country’s political, economic and social fabric,” read the charge sheet according to state affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation. On May 16, 2017, a year and half after his arrest, the federal high court found the comments exceeded freedom of expression.
While Yonathan could have been sent to 10 to 20 years in prison, the court on May 25 accepted his appeal for a minimum sentence and gave him six years and six months to be counted from his arrest.
‘Ongoing human rights crisis in Ethiopia’
The verdicts invited further criticisms on the government in Addis Ababa over its treatment of dissenting voices.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the verdict against Yonathan and labeled it “a miscarriage of justice” under a “draconian and deeply flawed law.” Michelle Kagari, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said in a statement that the ruling “a shameful affront to people’s right to express themselves and further entrenches repression in Ethiopia.”
Separately, a joint letter penned on May 25 by eight civil society groups including Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Freedom House and the Ethiopian Human Rights Project addressing the “pervasive human rights crisis in Ethiopia” calls for “journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition leaders and members as well as protesters arbitrarily detained during and in the aftermath of the protests” to be “immediately and unconditionally” released.
The letter urges the UN Human Rights Council, which will convene for its 35th session in June to “prioritize and address” the “ongoing human rights crisis in Ethiopia.” A “lack of independence of the judiciary” as well as the absence of opposition in parliament leaves Ethiopia few venues to pursue accountability for rights’ abuses, the letter says, citing the continued targeting of the opposition and the media as a major problem.
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