news analysis advocacy

Support AfricaFocus and independent bookstores!

Make non-profit your first stop for buying books.
See books recommended by AfricaFocus.


Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!

Format for print or mobile

Ethiopia: Counterterrorism as Pretext

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jul 16, 2012 (120716)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

On July 13 an Ethiopian court handed down heavy prison sentences to six journalists convicted on vague terrorism charges. Award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega got an 18-year term; the others live in exile and were sentenced in absentia. This was the latest in a series of repressive actions by the Ethiopian government against journalists taken under the sweeping Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. This is a particularly blatant example of the use of counterterrorism as a pretext, as similar over-broad counterterrorism legislation continues to proliferate in countries around the world.

This kind of abuse is distinct from the serious abuses of human rights and international law by governments, including the United States and many other countries, taken in the course of actions against violent groups that are accurately described as terrorists. Vague definitions of terrorism, in addition, allow the use of counterterrorism laws to repress opponents guilty of nothing more than free expression or other peaceful opposition to incumbent governments.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a selection of articles and documents on the latest case in Ethiopia, including an op-ed by scholar Tobias Hoffman, press statements by the U.S. Department of State, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch, and a report on critiques presented earlier this year by UN human rights experts.

Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department joined in the critique of Ethiopia's action, there seems little prospect that the United States or other leading international donors will put significant pressure on the Ethiopian government to stop such practices. According to the latest statistics, for 2008-2010, Ethiopia ranked first among African countries in the volume of Official Development Assistance received. Ethiopia also remains a key military partner of the United States in actions against Al Shabaab in Somalia.

An extensive background report by Human Rights Watch in 2010 documented how aid is used in Ethiopia a tool to support repression. / direct URL:

For regular critical commentary on the repressive political situation in Ethiopia, see the Monday Commentaries by Alemayehu G. Mariam at

The text of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 is available at

The latest statistics on official development assistance to Africa show that Ethiopia is the top recipient, with an average of 3.559 billion in aid a year over the period 2008-2010.

While the abuse of counterterrorism laws in Ethiopia is extreme, the phenomenon is worldwide, as documented in a June 2012 report by Human Rights Watch entitled "In the Name of Security: Counterterrorism Laws Worldwide since September 11," documenting the widespread enactment of laws against terrorism with multiple scope for violation of international standards on human rights and due process, notably including vague and over-broad definitions of terrorism. For the full 112-page report, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Supporting Stability, Abetting Repression

By Tobias Hoffman

New York Times, July 11, 2012 / direct URL:

Tobias Hagmann specializes in East African politics. He is a visiting scholar at the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Berkeley, California - Next time I travel to Ethiopia, I may be arrested as a terrorist. Why? Because I have published articles about Ethiopian politics.

I wrote a policy report on Ethiopia's difficulties with federalism. I gave a talk in which I questioned Ethiopia's May 2010 elections, in which the ruling EPRDF party (Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front) won 545 out of 547 seats in the Parliament. As part of my ongoing research on mass violence in the Somali territories, I interviewed members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist rebel group in eastern Ethiopia that the government has designated as a terrorist organization.

In the eyes of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, my work is tantamount to subversion. Not only do his officials have zero tolerance for criticism, they consider people who either talk to or write about the opposition as abetting terrorists.

In recent years the government has effectively silenced opposition parties, human rights organizations, journalists and researchers. On June 27 a federal court convicted the journalist Eskinder Nega and 23 opposition politicians for 'participation in a terrorist organization.' More than 10 other journalists have been charged under an anti-terrorism law introduced in 2009. Among them are two Swedes, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who are serving an 11-year prison sentence in Ethiopia. Hundreds of opposition supporters languish in prisons for exercising the very democratic rights that the Ethiopian Constitution nominally protects.

Most people outside Ethiopia associate the country with famine and poverty. They know little about the country's history and politics - for example that Ethiopia was never colonized, or that it has Africa's second biggest population. Nor are they aware that Ethiopia is a darling of the donor community, receiving more aid than any other African country. Over the past year alone, the U.S. Agency for International Development has given Ethiopia $675 million in aid. The United States closely collaborates with Ethiopia in covert missions against radical Islamists in neighboring Somalia.

Much of this support comes from the portrayal of Ethiopia as a strong and stable government in a region riddled with political upheaval. The problem, however, is that Ethiopia is plagued by too much state control.

When EPRDF came to power in 1991, it promised to democratize the country. Two decades later the party has a tight grip on all public institutions, from the capital to remote villages. Formally a federal democracy, Ethiopia is a highly centralized one-party state. No independent media, judiciary, opposition parties or civil society to speak of exist in today's Ethiopia. Many of the country's businesses are affiliated with the ruling party. Most Ethiopians do not dare to discuss politics for fear of harassment by local officials.

As I found out in dozens of interviews with Ethiopian Somalis, security forces indiscriminately kill, imprison and torture civilians whom they suspect of aiding Ogaden rebels.

How have donors who fund about one third of Ethiopia's budget and many humanitarian programs reacted to this? They haven't. They not only continue to support the Ethiopian government but in recent years have increased their aid. 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.

This policy is wrong, shortsighted and counterproductive. It is wrong because billions in Western tax money are spent to support an authoritarian regime. It is shortsighted because it ignores the fact that the absence of basic rights and freedoms is one of the reasons Ethiopians are so poor. It is counterproductive because many Ethiopians resent the unconditional aid and recognition given to their rulers. In Ethiopia - and also in Rwanda and Uganda - the West is once again making the mistake of rewarding stability and growth while closing its eyes to repression.

Ethiopia sentences Eskinder, 5 others on terror charges

Committee to Protect Journalists

Nairobi, July 13, 2012--An Ethiopian court today handed down heavy prison sentences to six journalists convicted on vague terrorism charges, local journalists and news reports said. Award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega got an 18-year term; the others live in exile and were sentenced in absentia.

"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," presiding Judge Endeshaw Adane told a packed courtroom at the Lideta Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, as he issued sentences for 24 defendants, including the journalists, convicted of involvement in a vague terror plot, according to wire reports.

The judge accused veteran journalist Eskinder of participating in a terrorist organization, planning a terrorist act, and "working with the Ginbot 7 organization," a U.S.-based opposition group that the Ethiopian government formally designated a terrorist entity in 2011. The judge also accused Eskinder of wanting to incite anti-government protests in Ethiopia with online articles discussing the Arab Spring. Authorities have detained Eskinder at least eight times during Meles Zenawi's two decades as prime minister, according to CPJ research.

Exiled journalists Mesfin Negash and Abiye Teklemariam received eight years each based on accusations of making information about Ginbot 7 available to Ethiopians through their news website, Addis Neger Online.

Abebe Gellaw of the U.S.-based Addis Voice and Abebe Belew of U.S.-based Internet radio station Addis Dimts were each sentenced in absentia to 15 years, and Fasil Yenealem got a life sentence, based on their activities with pro-opposition exiled broadcaster Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), which government prosecutors described in court documents as "the voice of the terrorist organization Ginbot 7."

All of the journalists have professed their innocence, according to news reports. Violations of fundamental principles of fairness, such as the presumption of innocence, undermined the credibility of the trial, according to legal experts and CPJ research.

Defense lawyer Abebe Guta told Agence France-Presse the defense would appeal.

"The harsh sentences handed down to Eskinder and five other journalists on baseless terrorism charges tell the rest of the press corps that critical coverage of the government is an act of terrorism," said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. "The international community should rebuke Ethiopia for using the cover of terrorism to deny its citizens the fundamental right to free expression."

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, three U.N. special rapporteurs, the U.S. State Department, members of the U.S. Senate , and the European Union have expressed concern at Ethiopia's use of its far-reaching antiterrorism law to criminalize fundamental rights guaranteed under the Ethiopian constitution.

Fasil, who has continued to practice journalism from exile, had already been sentenced in absentia to life in prison in 2009 on anti-state charges based on his affiliation with Ginbot 7. "For the second time, I am sentenced to life in prison. What can I say about this verdict? Do I have two souls to serve both sentences on earth, or is the latest one reserved for the other world?" he told CPJ today.

"The central goal of the charge is cutting us from our home and warning journalists and other critical voices to remain silent," Mesfin told CPJ.

Ethiopian Court's Sentencing in Anti-Terrorism Trial

Press Statement
Victoria Nuland
Department Spokesperson, Office of the Spokesperson Washington, DC

July 14, 2012

The United States remains 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. The sentences handed down today, including 18 years for Eskinder and life imprisonment for the opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law in this and other cases.

The Ethiopian government has used the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to jail journalists and opposition party members for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression and association. This practice raises serious concerns about the extent to which Ethiopians can rely upon their constitutionally guaranteed rights to afford the protection that is a fundamental element of a democratic society.

We reiterate our call for the Government of Ethiopia to stop stifling freedom of expression and we urge the release of those who have been imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Ethiopia: Terrorism Law Used to Crush Free Speech: Donors Should Condemn Verdicts, Demand Legal Reforms

Human Rights Watch

June 27, 2012

July 13, 2012 UPDATE: On July 13 Eskinder was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His lawyer said he will appeal.

(Nairobi) - Ethiopian high court on June 27, 2012, convicted 24 journalists, political opposition leaders, and others under Ethiopia's deeply flawed anti-terrorism law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Ethiopian government should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against the defendants and amend the law's most pernicious provisions, which are being used to criminalize free expression and peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

In the third high-profile "terrorism" verdict in the past six months, Eskinder Nega Fenta, an independent journalist and blogger, was one of six journalists convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. Their sentencing is expected on July 13.

Eskinder Nega, who was recently honored with the prestigious PEN America press freedom award, is in detention in Addis Ababa, and was convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, which carries a sentence of 15 years to life imprisonment or death,as well as participation in a terrorist organization and treason. The other five journalists were convicted in absentia. A total of 11 journalists have been charged or convicted under the antiterrorism law since December 2011, including two Swedish journalists who were arrested while trying to investigate the conflict in Ethiopia's eastern Somali region.

"This case shows that Ethiopia's government will not tolerate even the mildest criticism," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "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."

Members of the political opposition were also among those convicted under the law on June 27.

Andualem Arage Wale and Nathnael Mekonnen Gebre Kidan, prominent members of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), a registered opposition political party, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts as well as participation in a terrorist organization and treason as was Kinfemichael Debebe Bereded, a member of the All Ethiopian Democratic Party (AEDP).

The convictions bring the total known number of individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges to 34, including 11 journalists, at least 4 opposition supporters and 19 others.

The anti-terrorism law's most problematic provisions were used during this trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Two of the journalists tried in absentia, Mesfin Negash and Abiye Tekle Mariam, were convicted under the law's article on support for terrorism, which contains a vague prohibition on "moral support." This provision is contrary to the principle of legality, which requires that people be able to determine what acts would constitute a crime. Only journalists have been charged and convicted under this article.

All of the 24 defendants were initially charged with "terrorist acts." Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns over the law's broad definition of "terrorist acts," which can be used to prosecute lawful, peaceful dissent. Similarly, all defendants were initially charged with "encouragement of terrorism," which includes the publication of statements "likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts," a provision that Human Rights Watch has warned could be used against government critics and journalists who even publish the names of organizations or individuals deemed to be terrorists.

"The Ethiopian government is using every means at its disposal to shut down press freedom," Lefkow said. "Ethiopia's international partners should immediately call for the release of the many journalists and opposition supporters unlawfully prosecuted, and for the revision of the law that put them behind bars."

Ethiopian courts have little independence from the government. As in earlier terrorism trials, the trial of the 24 was marred by serious due process violations, Human Rights Watch said. The defendants had no access to legal counsel during almost two months of pre-trial detention and complaints of mistreatment and torture by defendants were not appropriately investigated.

Nathnael Mekonnen told the court that during his pre-trial detention he was tortured for 23 days, including being beaten, forced to stand for hours upon end, deprived of sleep, and having cold water repeatedly poured over him at the notorious Maekelawi facility. His complaints were not investigated. According to credible sources, Andualem Arage lodged a complaint after he was beaten by a convicted prisoner on February 15 in Kaliti prison, but his complaint was dismissed. The court prevented further questioning by defense attorneys and accepted as fact the response by the prison administrator that contradicted Andualem's claims, without further investigation.

Furthermore, the Ethiopian authorities and government media have repeatedly undermined defendants' presumption of innocence. In October 2011 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Ethiopian parliament that the journalists and political opposition members arrested under the law were guilty of terrorism.

In late November state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV) broadcast a three-part program called "Akeldama" ("Land of Blood") in which several of the defendants, including Andualem Arage and Nathnael Mekonnen, were filmed in detention, seemingly under duress, describing their alleged involvement in what the documentary brands a "terrorist plot." Allegations were also made against Eskinder Nega. The court reportedly dismissed the complaints of due process violations against the defendants on the grounds that the video footage was not produced as evidence by the prosecutor.

The same court later charged the editor of the independent weekly newspaper Feteh, Temesghen Desalegn, of contempt of court for having among other things reproduced verbatim statements made by a defendant. The courts in Ethiopia have little independence from the government.

"The courts trying cases under the anti-terrorism law have repeatedly run roughshod over the rights of defendants," Lefkow said. "Judicial independence has all but vanished in any politically sensitive case in Ethiopia."

Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws must not be misused to curb rights - UN

United Nations News Centre

2 February 2012 - A group of independent United Nations human rights experts today spoke out against the ongoing use of anti-terrorism laws to curb freedom of expression in Ethiopia, where several journalists were recently given prison sentences under such legislation.

"Journalists play a crucial role in promoting accountability of public officials by investigating and informing the public about human rights violations," said Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. "They should not face criminal proceedings for carrying out their legitimate work, let alone be severely punished."

A week ago, three journalists and two opposition politicians were given prison sentences ranging from 14 years to life imprisonment under Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws. This followed the sentencing of two Swedish journalists to 11 years in prison in December, a news release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated.

Another 24 defendants are scheduled to appear in court next month, for various charges under the anti-terrorism law, several of whom may face the death sentence if convicted.

Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, said that "the anti-terrorism provisions should not be abused and need to be clearly defined in Ethiopian criminal law to ensure that they do not go counter to internationally guaranteed human rights."

The Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, emphasized that "journalists, bloggers and others advocating for increased respect for human rights should not be subject to pressure for the mere fact that their views are not in alignment with those of the Government."

She voiced concern at the case of Eskinder Nega, a blogger and human rights defender who may face the death penalty if convicted. Mr. Nega has been advocating for reform on the issue of the right to assemble peacefully in public.

Similarly, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, cautioned against the ongoing campaign of harassment against associations expressing dissenting views, while Gabriela Knaul, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, deplored the reported failure to ensure the defendants' right to a fair trial.

The experts called on the Ethiopian Government to respect the concerned individuals' fundamental rights, especially their right to a fair trial, and reiterated the need to apply anti-terrorism legislation cautiously and in accordance with the country's international human rights obligations.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Ethiopia||Africa Politics & Human Rights|

URL for this file: