Washington — Human rights groups, press watchdogs, and even the U.S. government have strongly denounced recent prison sentences meted out against journalists and opposition activists accused of violating Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws.
In an unusually tough statement against a close ally, the State Department said it was "deeply concerned about the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, as well as seven political opposition figures, under the country's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation."
It said the 18-year prison sentence for Eskinder and life imprisonment for opposition leader Andualem Arage Wale handed down by the high court in Addis Ababa Friday "are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law in these and other cases."
The sentences are "emblematic of the Ethiopian government's determination to gag any dissenting voice in the country", charged Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher.
She said both men, as well as Nathnael Mekonnen Gebre Kidan, another opposition leader who was convicted late last month in the same anti-terrorism case, were "prisoners of conscience - convicted and imprisoned because of their legitimate and peaceful activities. They should be immediately and unconditionally released."
The prison sentences followed the Jun. 27 conviction by the Ethiopian high court of a total of two dozen journalists, political opposition leaders, and other activists for allegedly violating the controversial Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 (ATP).
Of the 24, Eskinder, an influential blogger and journalist who has long championed basic freedoms in Ethiopia, is perhaps the most well known in the West, having just recently received the prestigious PEN America press freedom award. While he remains in detention, the other five journalists convicted by the court were tried in absentia.
Eskinder, who has been detained at least eight times since 1995, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), was charged with participating in a terrorist organisation, planning a terrorist act, and "working with the Ginbot 7 organisation", a U.S.-based opposition group which the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi officially designated as a terrorist group last year.
The ATP is the latest in a series of laws that the Meles government has used to crack down on political dissent and suppress free speech, according to international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, HRW, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), among others.
In a joint appearance in February, several independent U.N. human rights experts, including special rapporteurs who deal with press freedom, counter-terrorism and human rights, and human rights defenders, also warned against the use of the ATP against individuals who were merely exercising their rights to free speech and association.
The ATP's article on support for terrorism, for example, contains a vague prohibition on "moral support", under which journalists have been charged and convicted. "Encouragement of terrorism," under which all 24 defendants in the latest case were charged, includes the publication of statements "likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts", a highly subjective definition that lends itself to serious abuse.
"Not only do (Meles's) officials have zero tolerance for criticism, they consider people who either talk to or write about the opposition as abetting terrorists," noted Tobias Hoffman, an East Africa expert at the University of California at Berkeley, in an op-ed published in the New York Times last week just before the prison sentences were announced.
As defined by the ATP, an "act of terrorism" is also vague and could include activities such as organising a peaceful march or assembly.
"The Ethiopian government is using every means at its disposal to shut down press freedom," said HRW's deputy Africa director, Leslie Lefkow. "The use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law."
She urged Ethiopia's donors to immediately call for the release of all those who have been unlawfully prosecuted under the law and for a revision of the Proclamation.
She was joined by several other organisations, including London-based Article 19 and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), whose president, Omar Faruk Osman, called the prosecution of journalists under anti-terrorism laws "unacceptable".
That position was echoed by the State Department whose strong denunciation of the prosecution and conviction of the defendants was particularly notable given Washington's generally staunch support for the Meles government.
Indeed, Addis Ababa has been one of the three top U.S. aid recipients in sub-Saharan Africa over the last several years. In 2011, it received nearly 800 million dollars, more than any other African nation.
The European Union, which released a somewhat more subdued criticism of the trial, is also a major donor to Ethiopia, about a third of whose budget is provided by donor countries and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, according to Hoffman.
In a major 2010 report, HRW criticised the donors' alleged failure to monitor how the Meles government uses the aid to support repression and consolidate its power and to take corrective measures.
"The West, most prominently the United States and the European Union, have concluded a strange pact with Meles Zenawi: So long as his government produces statistics that evince economic growth, they are willing to fund his regime - whatever its human rights abuses," Hoffman charged last week.
In addition, Washington, in particular, receives the benefit of Ethiopian cooperation in counter-terrorism, currently targeted against al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group in neighbouring Somalia. The U.S., for example, has been using a small base in Arba Minch to fly surveillance drones over Somali territory.
Similarly, Ethiopia has offered help on other regional security issues, most recently by providing 4,000 troops to separate Sudanese from South Sudanese forces in the contested border town of Abeye at a moment when war between the two sides loomed as a distinct possibility, according to David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Addis Ababa who now teaches at George Washington University.
He praised the State Department's harsh rebuke of the court's action, noting that it was "much stronger than anything they usually put out, and it was long overdue".
But he also suggested that Washington had little leverage over Addis Ababa, noting that about 85 percent of U.S. aid to Ethiopia is earmarked for health programmes and food aid. Most of the rest is development assistance, and only a token military training programme of less than 100,000 dollars a year, he said.
"The question is, how far do you push it?" he told IPS. "Do you say (to the government), 'If you go any further, we're going to stop our humanitarian aid?' The answer (from the Meles government) would be, 'Okay.'"
"Humanitarian aid doesn't give you much leverage," he said.
- Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.