August 6, 2012

Harassment of Activists Remains Problematic in Ethiopia

Repeated arrests, detentions and even long term prison sentences are all punishments that must be paid for exercising the right to freedom of expression in Ethiopia, as the recent arrest of a number of human rights activists, journalists and others considered to be opposition members of the Ethiopian Government has proved.

Below is a press release issued by Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa(HRLHA)

The Ethiopian TPLF/EPRDF Government has given the local and international community another huge shock by imposing long term imprisonments on 24 human rights activists, journalists, and opposition members including the prominent press freedom advocate Iskinder Nega.

An Ethiopian court on Friday 13th of July, 2012  jailed  journalist Iskinder Nega for 18 years for “terrorism” while five other exiled journalists and a blogger were sentenced in absentia to between 15 years and life in prison simply because of attempting to exercise some of the fundamental rights such as that of freedom of expression and association granted by the Constitution of the country; and the court was said to have referred to the recently legislated and controversial “anti-terrorism” law to hand down the penalties.

HRLHA strongly condemns this very harsh and politically motivated punishment, and would like to express its deep concern over the ever frustrating human rights situations in the country. Mr. Iskinder Nega is a typical example of independent journalists in Ethiopia who work in a very unfriendly environment and are subjected to repeated arrests, detentions, politically motivated charges and punishments, and repeated long term imprisonments, etc., as a result of which many journalists fled the country and a lot of free press disappeared.

Opposition member Andualem Arage was also jailed for life, and two other prominent opposition figures, Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige received life sentences in absentia. It was very obvious from the outset that this “anti-terrorism” law was made to serve, more than anything else, this same purpose of harassing, intimidating and, by so doing, silencing and paralyzing voices and activities independent of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF Party. This “anti-terrorism” law, along with the so called Charities and Societies Proclamation, has severely eroded and stifled the very limited opportunities of exercising the basic and fundamental human rights, by narrowing spaces for independent operations and consequently entrapping the various Ethiopian societies in chronic social, economic and political backwardness.

This very recent punishment imposed on journalists and human rights activists, and opposition members is a very good reminder that the political situations in Ethiopia continued to be very precarious for activists and advocates of fundamental freedoms. The HRLHA once again calls up on the Ethiopian Government to re-assess both the contents and interpretations or applications of this “anti-terrorism” law, and ensure its consistency with the international laws and human rights codes that the country has ratified.

HRLHA would like to express its appreciation to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, US state department, EU Human Rights Commission, and International Human Rights Organizations and others for the strong reaction they demonstrated against this harsh punishment against dissidents; and calls up on other regional and international human rights as well as media advocacy organizations to join hands and put pressure on the Ethiopian Government so that it not only re-considers the sentences unfairly passed on to those human rights activists, but also reverses the sentence and  release them unconditionally.

UPDATE:

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also drawn attention to the problem, expressing her alarm at the situation in Ethiopia, which she believes to be caused by excessively broad laws on terrorism and civil society registration.

Below is an article published by The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

GENEVA (18 July 2012) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday said she is seriously alarmed about the current climate of intimidation against human rights defenders and journalists in Ethiopia, resulting from the use of “overly broad” laws on terrorism and civil society registration.

“The recent sentencing of 20 Ethiopians, including prominent blogger Eskinder Nega, journalists and opposition figures, under the vague anti-terrorism law has brought into stark focus the precarious situation of journalists, human rights defenders and Government critics in the country,” Pillay said.

“The very harsh sentences handed down to journalists and other Government critics in recent months, coupled with excessive restrictions placed on human rights NGOs in the country have had the effect of stifling dissent and seriously undermining the freedom of opinion and expression in Ethiopia,” she added.

“The once vibrant civil society in Ethiopia has been whittled away as the space for them to operate freely has rapidly shrunk since the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation was passed into law,” the High Commissioner said. "The dramatic reduction in the number of organisations working on human rights issues, particularly on civil and political rights, is deeply disturbing."

Pillay said she echoed the “grave alarm” expressed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights about the arrest and prosecution of journalists and political opposition members under terrorism and treason charges for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association.*

“Laws to combat terrorism must be consistent with the Government’s human rights obligations under international conventions as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other regional instruments to which Ethiopia is party,” Pillay said. “The overly broad definitions in the July 2009 anti-terrorism law of Ethiopia result in criminalizing the exercise of fundamental human rights,” she said, adding she was also concerned about difficult conditions in pre-trial detention and due process in the conduct of the various trials.

“Taken together, such laws have created a climate of intimidation,” Pillay said. She also called on the Government to intensify efforts to ensure the independence of the judiciary.

Pillay urged the Ethiopian Government to review its anti-terrorism and civil society legislation, as well as its interpretation and application by the courts, to ensure conformity with international human rights standards. She offered the services of the UN Human Rights office to work with the authorities on such a review.

ENDS

* At its 51st ordinary session (18 April - 2 May 2012), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) adopted a resolution on Ethiopia, stating it was “gravely alarmed by the arrest and prosecutions of journalists and political opposition members, charged with terrorism and other offences, including treason, for exercising their peaceful and legitimate rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.” The ACHPR resolution also condemned “the excessive restrictions placed on human rights work by the Charities and Societies Proclamation.”

UN Human Rights, country page – Ethiopia:
http://www.ohchr.org/en/countries/africaregion/pages/etindex.aspx