Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa
Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa

A prominent Ethiopian political opposition member sits in prison on charges of terrorism. He faces a long sentence and possibly the death penalty if convicted.

But the tool he is accused of using to commit the crime wasn't a gun or a bomb, and he isn't connected to any kind of religious extremism.

Instead, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Eleven statements from his Facebook page were used as evidence. His posts were critical of the way the Ethiopian government handled the crackdown during the protests throughout the Oromia region. The Ethiopian government charged him with planning or inciting terror acts.

In May, Yonatan's lawyer presented a statement to the court challenging the accusations and stating that Yonatan was only expressing his thoughts, which are protected by the constitution. His case is ongoing.

Increasing terrorism arrests

Yonatan's case is not unique in Ethiopia or across Africa where, according to Amnesty International, laws designed to prosecute terrorism are increasingly being used to silence political dissidents, opposition party members, journalists and others in civil society. Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have enacted similar laws in recent years.

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Yonatan Tesfaye

Arrests and long pre-trial detentions are becoming increasingly common, and are worrying to Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes.

"[Yonatan] wasn't charged from December until the beginning of this month. And then, basically, he was charged with incitement, planning preparation, conspiracy and attempt to commit a terrorist act," she told VOA. "Obviously, Ethiopia, like us here in Kenya, has concerns about security. But to extend that to really silence legitimate dissent is not good."

Lewis Gordon is the executive director of the Environmental Defender Law Center, which helps people in developing countries who face threats due to advocacy for the environment or human rights. He said the Ethiopian law was enacted in 2009 as an anti-terror measure, but he believes its real aim was something different.

"There's ample evidence that it was designed more as a tool to stifle legitimate dissent to policies of the government there," he said.

The main evidence is that the wording of the law is extremely vague. For instance, Part 2, Section 3 of the law describes a terrorist group as "intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public, or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or economic, or social institutions of the country."

"It is a law with breathtaking wide provisions — especially its definition of terrorism," Gordon said.

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FILE - Ethiopian journalists hold placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi, May 2, 2006.

"It's defined in a way that makes it impossible for individuals to know whether or not they've run afoul of the law and that's one of the standard requirements in criminal law — before you criminalize behavior, you have to notify people of how they can reform their behavior to societal norms and not run into trouble and this does a very, very poor job of that."

Abuse of anti-terror laws

Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank, has closely studied Yonatan's case and said it is similar to that of another dissident, Bekele Gerba, an intellectual and opposition member who led the Oromo Federalist Congress and was imprisoned in 2011 for meeting with Amnesty International researchers. He was released in advance of the visit of President Barack Obama last year.

"In the course of our research, we have seen that there is no real definition of what a real terrorist crime looks like," Mittal said. "You know, a Facebook post, bloggers' crime being blogging about social or economic issues in the country, or you take the case of Bekele Gerba being a moderate leader of the Oromo people and his crime being that the people are out in the streets protesting the Master Plan of the Ethiopian government."

Gordon said there is a growing consensus that anti-terror laws are being abused around the world and need to be reformed so that they apply only to concrete acts with the intent of causing death or serious injuries, as opposed to vague wording that can be used against peaceful dissidents. He pointed out that the Ethiopian law has been condemned by four U.N. special rapporteurs, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the governments of the U.S. and the U.K.

"So this is not just an NGO challenge to a law, it's a law that's universally condemned and it's a law that is, unfortunately, symptomatic and indicative of a trend that's been going on for a while," he said.