ADDIS ABABA - In Ethiopia, a series of high-profile trials is being closely watched as a test of recently-enacted anti-terrorism legislation. A three-judge federal panel is hearing the trials of as many as 150 people arrested on terrorism-related charges last year, including prominent politicians and journalists.
Almost every week for the past few months, a small group of journalists and diplomats has gathered at Addis Ababa's Lideta federal court complex to attend terrorism trials.
The most high-profile is the case of journalist Eskinder Nega, recent winner of the PEN America “Freedom to Write” Award, and Andualem Arage, who had been one of the rising stars in Ethiopia's political opposition. They are accused of collaborating with the outlawed Ginbot Seven (May 15th) political party to carry out terrorist attacks.
U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Booth was in the courtroom last week when a verdict in the case was due, but the judges postponed the announcement till mid-June, saying they needed more time.
Among the other trials before the court was the case of two Swedish journalists captured in the restive Ogaden region in the company of members of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF. The journalists were convicted of supporting terrorism, and given 11-year prison terms.
In another case, the deputy editor of a now-defunct independent newspaper and a columnist for another paper were convicted of plotting terrorist acts. Both received long sentences.
Then there is the case of a senior United Nations security official who played a key role last year in negotiating the release of two World Food Program employees abducted in the Ogaden. Shortly after the release, the U.N. officer was arrested and charged with having ties to the ONLF.
Almost forgotten has been the case of more than 100 ethnic Oromo political activists. Prosecutors have alleged they were involved with the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF.
Oromos are the largest of Ethiopia's ethnic groups, and the defendants include top leaders of the two main Oromo opposition parties, as well as former members of parliament.
The sheer number of these cases has drawn international attention to Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation. The law was passed in 2009. and came into full effect last year when Ginbot Seven, the ONLF, the Oromo Liberation Front, and al-Qaida were declared terrorist groups.
In a report titled “Dismantling Dissent”, the rights group Amnesty International accuses Ethiopia of systematically using the law and the pretext of fighting terrorism to silence internal critics.
Amnesty researcher Claire Beston was expelled from Ethiopia last August shortly after meeting with senior Oromo opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa. Both men were arrested days later on terrorism charges.
Beston says critics of Ethiopia's ruling party appear to be the law's main targets. "Since the law has been introduced, it's been used more to prosecute opposition members and journalists than persons who might be committing so-called terrorist activities," he said.
The once-busy headquarters of the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement, Ethiopia's largest Oromo party, is deserted these days. OFDM Deputy Secretary General Bekele Nega says the arrests of activists such as Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa have frightened supporters away. "This is what the government wants. This is the message they are sending to the people. Don't work with these opposition groups. They are terrorists. I'll imprison you, just like Bekele, just like Olbana, so they don't come, fearing imprisonment, fearing torture," he said.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal strongly denies there is any intent to crack down on ethnic Oromos. He accuses opposition groups of trying to steer the issue to their own advantage. "[The] government does not espouse a policy that would precisely target certain members of ethnic groups, isolating them, and prosecuting them. So you journalists, you should not stick an ethnic tag to cases. You should be careful because it would sound like the government is prosecuting a certain tribe or ethnic group. This is misleading," he said.
Shimeles and other officials, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have also rejected the charge that Ethiopia uses anti-terrorism laws to suppress dissent. They allege that terrorists have used journalism and politics as a cover for their nefarious activities.
Opposition leaders point out, however, that none of the defendants is accused of carrying out an actual terrorist attack, and that Ethiopia has remained relatively free of terrorism despite its location in one of the world's most volatile regions.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights this month approved a resolution expressing alarm at Ethiopia's prosecution of journalists and political opposition members. The resolution calls on Ethiopia to remove the anti-terrorism law's restrictions on freedom of expression.