The Ethiopian Federal High Court [official website, in Amharic] on Thursday convicted three Ethiopian journalists, a political opposition leader and a politician's assistant for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism in violation of the country's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 [text]. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] and other advocacy groups have criticized the law as a violation of free expression and due process rights. HRW reported [press release] Thursday that the defendants had no access to legal counsel during their three months in pretrial detention and that the court did not investigate allegations of torture and mistreatment while in detention. Although two of the convicted journalists argued that they had been beaten and tortured in prison, the court chose not to investigate the matter furthe . Said Lesli Lefkow [HRW profile], senior Africa researcher at HRW:
The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent. The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt. Getting a fair trial in a political case in Ethiopia today may be impossible. The prosecution should drop the charges against these defendants and instead investigate their allegations of torture.Claire Beston, the Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website], echoed Lefkow's statement when she asserted [press release] that much of the evidence against the defendants was merely journalistic reports and calls for peaceful protests against the government. Under the anti-terrorism law, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts carries a sentence of 15 years to life imprisonment or death. Sentencing is expected to occur on January 26.
Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law has faced consistent criticism since being passed [JURIST report] in 2009. Most recently, in December, two Swedish journalists were convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison for supporting terrorism and entering Ethiopia illegally. There, the court did not find credible the journalists' argument that they entered into the country with a terrorist group in order to gain access to an area restricted to journalists. In response, HRW argued that the law is being used to suppress journalists [JURIST report], that the trial was unfair and that the Swedes should be released immediately [press release]. Similarly, in August, JURIST guest columnist and former executive director Abigail Salisbury argued that the Ethiopian government is using the law to suppress journalists and opposition groups in order to maintain its hold on power [JURIST op-ed]. In July, HRW called on the government to stop using the law to repress free speech [JURIST report].