NAIROBI - An Ethiopian court has convicted 24 people, including a prominent writer and an opposition leader on terrorism-related charges. Rights groups have condemned the verdict as an assault on the opposition.
Journalist Eskinder Nega and an opposition member Andualem Arage were among the eight defendants found guilty Wednesday by Ethiopia's High Court in Addis Ababa. Another 16 people were convicted in absentia.
The men could face the death penalty for the charges including the encouragement of terrorism and high treason. Sentencing is expected next month.
The case against Eskinder included an argument that he had advocated for violence by writing about whether Ethiopia would ever experience the kind of Arab Spring uprising that swept North Africa.
He was also accused of supporting an outlawed political party called Ginbot Seven, which the government has labelled a terrorist group.
East Africa Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rhodes, said the court cases were part of the government's attempts to silence the opposition.
“It reflects a government now that is totally, has no acceptance of any form of criticism whatsoever and is cracking down on the press," he said.
The defendants were convicted under a 2009 terrorism law that makes it illegal to publish any information deemed to encourage terrorist acts.
Two Ethiopian journalists were sentenced to 14 years in prison in January on similar charges. And two Swedish journalists convicted of supporting terrorism have been imprisoned for 11 years.
Rights groups have accused the government of using the law to silence dissent, and to target members of the ethnic Oromo opposition, a charge the government flatly denies.
Tom Rhodes says the anti-terrorism policy has effectively stamped out freedom of expression in the country.
"My impression is, and what I can gather from other local journalists in Ethiopia, especially Addis Ababa, is that the government is getting nervous about popular dissent against them and the first target on their list happens to be journalists and happens to be the media," he said. "We really, we have only got one or two critical voices left in the country."
Journalists and a human rights defender were among the 16 men who were sentenced in absentia Wednesday.
More than 100 ethnic Oromo political activists are also being tried on similar charges. Prosecutors allege they were involved with the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF.
The defendants include the top leaders of the two main Oromo opposition parties and former members of parliament.