Addis Ababa — Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is once again stirring debate in this Horn of Africa nation as lawyer Temam Ababulga challenges the 2009 law in the highly-publicised "Muslim terrorism" case.
Ethiopia's Federal High Court will deliver the judgment in the case, where 29 Muslims were arrested in July on charges of terrorism, on Thursday Dec. 6.
Ethiopia has had Muslim demonstrations since the beginning of the year, as members of the religious community have protested against what they say is government interference in their religious affairs. Around one-third of the 84 million people in this predominantly Christian nation are Muslim.
The dispute reached a head in July when 29 leaders of the Muslim community were arrested during a meeting, and charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Under the decree, peaceful protest and dissent can be considered terrorism, and critical reporting by the media is seen as encouraging terrorism.
"We believe that the proclamation is not constitutional," Temam told IPS.
Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly criticised Ethiopia's anti-terrorism decree. Leslie Lefkow, the rights watchdog's Africa specialist, told IPS that there are a number of human rights concerns in the proclamation.
"The definition of 'terrorist acts' is so broad that it can be used to prosecute a wide range of conduct far beyond what can reasonably be considered terrorist activity, such as legitimate peaceful protest and dissent, and protected speech," she said.
In addition to rights organisations, the United Nations and foreign governments have criticised the proclamation for its broad interpretations of terrorism. Almost 200 people were imprisoned under this proclamation in 2011 alone, mostly members of the opposition, journalists and activists.
Amnesty International's Claire Beston agreed that the proclamation was unconstitutional. "The constitution guarantees the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association, including, explicitly, the right to peacefully protest. As the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation places restrictions on these rights, it does violate Ethiopia's Constitution," she told IPS.
Under Article 25 of the proclamation, parliament has the power "to proscribe and de-proscribe an organisation as a terrorist organisation." This is another violation of the constitution, according to Temam.
"By implementing this proclamation, parliament has given up on the separation of power," he said.
Other constitutional provisions that have allegedly been violated fall under the article concerning the collection of evidence. Article 23.1 states that intelligence reports with information obtained by the police or secret services with evidence against terrorist suspects may be used in court "even if the report does not disclose the source or the method in which it was gathered."
"The court has no choice but to release my clients," said Teman, noting that article 13 of Ethiopia's constitution specifically rules out charges that are not constitutional.
Ethiopia's late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in August after ruling the country for 21 years, defended the proclamation in February. He told parliament that the proclamation was copied word for word from other countries: "We took from America, England and the European model anti-terrorism laws. From these we have chosen the better ones...the proclamation in every respect is flawless. It is better than the best anti-terrorism laws."
There are several other ongoing anti-terrorism cases. These include the cases of award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage, who are currently appealing their sentences.
They were arrested in 2011 for alleged acts of terrorism and for trying to start an Arab Spring against the Ethiopian government. They were also accused of being active participants in terrorist groups such as the outlawed group Ginbot 7. Eskinder was sentenced to 18 years without parole and Andualem to life without parole.
A verdict is also expected soon in the so-called "Al-Qaeda trial" where 11 people are being prosecuted for alleged ties with the international terrorist organisation and its Somalia affiliate Al-Shabaab.
Meanwhile, Beston does not expect the court to declare the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation unconstitutional. "It is highly likely that the proclamation will continue to be used to silence government opponents and critics," she said.
Lefkof said that continued use of the anti-terrorism proclamation would have a negative impact on Ethiopian society.
"This is part of a larger crackdown on independent voices in Ethiopia, and it is a profoundly worrying trend. Rule based on oppressing fundamental human rights is a precarious and short-term strategy that will only harm Ethiopia and its people over the long term," she said.
Temam said he did not believe that Ethiopia needed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to prosecute people allegedly involved in terrorist activities.
"The current laws should be sufficient to charge terrorists and therefore I believe we will succeed in proving that this anti-terrorism proclamation is unconstitutional," he said.