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Rights Groups: Ethiopia Using Anti-Terror Law To Stifle Dissent

Two international human rights groups are urging Ethiopia to stop arresting journalists and political activists under anti-terrorism laws. The editor of one of Ethiopia's last remaining independent newspapers has fled the country amid concerns that more arrests are coming.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a statement Monday calling on Ethiopian authorities to stop using anti-terrorism laws to stifle political dissent.

The unusual joint statement comes as ten journalists are being tried in three separate terrorism related cases in Addis Ababa. One of the trials involves 24 defendants, including several prominent opposition politicians.

Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence told VOA by telephone that the rights groups decided to speak with one voice because Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law is vague and open to misuse for political purposes. "The trial of the 24 on the back of the other terrorism trials and trials of journalists and other opposition people is very serious and we thought it merited a joint statement to try and draw attention to just how serious it is," he said.

The statement came as word spread that Ethiopia's most popular independent newspaper has shut its doors and its editor fled the country, fearing arrest.

Dawit Kebede was among more than 100 journalists and political activists convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison following the disputed 2005 election. All were later pardoned, and several subsequently went into exile.

Dawit stayed, however, and became editor of the independent Awramba Times, one of a dwindling number of independent papers. His work earned him the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2010 Press Freedom Award.

But this week, he fled to the United States. Dawit told VOA from Washington that he became frightened after a state-owned publication ran an article calling for his arrest. "I got a tip off last Thursday from a reliable source at the Ministry of Justice that the government was planning to revoke my conditional pardon. The state owned newspaper Addis Zenen, in its October 19th edition, urged the security forces to take action against me," he said.

The final issue of Awramba Times carried a story about a teacher and opposition activist who burned himself to death in southwestern Ethiopia this month. VOA Amharic Service and other foreign media reported the man doused himself in gasoline and shouted, "death is preferable to life without justice or liberty”, before striking a match.

Government spokesmen did not answer repeated calls from VOA seeking comment about the suicide. But the government-run Walta Information Center reported the victim had been mentally ill, and his death had nothing to do with injustice. The article called VOA's report a “total fabrication” and warned the Amharic service to refrain from inciting violence in Ethiopia by propagating unfounded and wrong information.

Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia's government appears to be rejecting the basic principles of its constitution. "Ethiopia is one of the most concerning countries with its use of the justice system, and the manipulation of the legal system, and the deployment of political charges in this way. We haven't seen that in any other countries," he said.

Rawlence also criticized Addis Ababa's diplomatic community for failing to closely monitor the trials of journalists and political activists. He said the current trials should be watched the same as those following the 2005 elections, when US and European observers were in the courtroom regularly to follow the proceedings.