Ethiopia: Regime opponents given hefty sentences

An Ethiopian judge on January 26th handed down prison sentences ranging from 14 years to life to three journalists and two politicians.

The previous week a court had convicted the five of terrorism charges in a verdict that was immediately condemned by rights groups. They were charged under Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism laws. Officials had said they were involved in planning attacks on infrastructure, telecommunications and power lines.

Among those convicted is the former editor-in-chief of the now closed Awramba Times, Woubshet Taye, and columnist and former opposition member Reeyot Alemu, a columnist on independent weekly Feteh. They have been in prison since June 2011. They both got 14 years.

The other defendants found guilty were Elias Kifle, the editor of the online US-based publication Ethiopian Review. Elias Kifle, who was tried in absentia, was given life. Zerahun Gebrezabier, head of the opposition National Unity Party got 17 years and Hirut Kifle, accused of having links to Elias, 19 years.

Amnesty International condemned the verdict and called for the immediate release of those convicted. “There is no evidence that (they) were guilty of any criminal wrongdoing… the five are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work and peaceful activities,” Amnesty’s Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston said in a statement.

But Justice Ministry spokesman Justice Ministry Spokesman Desalegn Deressa dismissed Amnesty’s concerns.

Reeyot’s father said he was saddened by the verdict, which was “not expected.” Reeyot’s lawyer, Molla Zegeye, said his client will appeal. He also said he had never expected the sentence to be this severe. “She didn’t commit a terrorism crime. She is a professional journalist,” he said of Reeyot.

Ethiopia has one of the most restricted media in the world and the highest number of journalists living in exile, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In a separate court case, blogger Eskinder Nega, who had called for peaceful protest, faces the death penalty sentence after a judge on January 23rd found him guilty on terror charges.

Ethiopia has arrested close to 200 people, among them journalists and opposition politicians and members, under last year’s anti-terrorism proclamation. According to the CPJ more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world.  In December two Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years in prison causing an outcry.

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