An Ethiopian court on Thursday sentenced three journalists and two opposition political activists to long prison sentences for terrorism-related offenses.
Exiled internet blogger Elias Kifle was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. Kifle is editor of the U.S.-based Ethiopian Review website, which regularly features scathing criticisms of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government.
A three-judge federal panel last week convicted Kifle, two local newspaper journalists and two political activists of violating Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law. The charges included conspiring with the Ginbot Seven opposition political party, which Ethiopia considers a terrorist organization.
The two local journalists - Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye - received 14-year sentences. Reeyot was a columnist for Fiteh, Ethiopia's only remaining independent newspaper devoted to politics. Woubshet was deputy editor of the Awramba Times paper. The paper stopped publishing and editor Dawit Kebede fled into exile after Woubshet's arrest.
Reeyot's attorney, Molla Zegeye, says he is disappointed by the harshness of the sentence against his client, given that no terrorist acts were committed.
"I didn't expect this sentence. I didn't," he said. "It was an attempt. She didn't commit the terrorist crime. She didn't as far as I'm concerned. She's a journalist, a professional journalist. Well, it shouldn't be like this."
At the trial, prosecutors presented emails and other documents as evidence that Woubshet and Reeyot were conspiring to organize acts of terrorism.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement Thursday saying that the convictions were based on their writings about political dissent. The organization says that at least 10 journalists are in Ethiopian jails, including two Swedes who recently were sentenced to 11 years in prison on terrorism-related charges. The Swedes were arrested last June in the restive Ogaden region in the company of armed members of an outlawed rebel group.
After the conviction, the Swedish government issued a statement saying that it considers the pair legitimate journalists, and called for their prompt release. An Ethiopian spokesman said the government has no remorse about the convictions.
Another Ethiopian blogger, Eskinder Nega, is facing similar terrorism charges and could face the death penalty, if convicted. He is among 24 defendants, including several exiled journalists and two prominent opposition politicians who are also accused of involvement with the outlawed Ginbot Seven group.
Government spokesmen repeatedly have rejected charges that Ethiopia restricts press freedom. Government officials say the convicted journalists used their profession as a cover for terrorist activities.