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More journalists get jail time on anti-terrorism charges

Journalist Elias Kifle was handed a life sentence on 26 January
Journalist Elias Kifle was handed a life sentence on 26 January

Ethiopian Satellite Television

In another sign of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's worsening repression, a U.S.-based journalist was sentenced to life in prison on anti-terrorism charges, while two other journalists were given heavy prison sentences, report the Ethiopian Free press Journalists' Association (EFJA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and other IFEX members.

Elias Kifle, exiled Ethiopian editor of the Washington-based opposition website Ethiopian Review, was handed a life sentence in absentia on 26 January, which followed a 2007 life sentence given to him also in absentia on charges of treason for his coverage of the government's brutal repression of 2005 post-election protests, reports CPJ.

A court in the capital, Addis Ababa, sentenced Reyot Alemu, a columnist with the independent weekly "Feteh", and Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct weekly "Awramba Times", to 14 years in jail and 33,000 Birrs (US$1,500), report the members.

But according to CPJ and Human Rights Watch, most of the evidence against the journalists was based on their online writings and for calling for peaceful protests.

"This verdict has little to do with justice," said CPJ Africa advocacy coordinator Mohamed Keita. "We condemn this politicised prosecution designed to cow critical voices into silence and call on the Supreme Court to reverse all the convictions."

The three journalists were charged in September with lending support to an underground network of banned opposition groups, which has been criminalised under the country's 2009 antiterrorism law, says CPJ.

Their sentencing came just days after a fourth journalist, Eskinder Nega, was found guilty of terrorism charges. Nega left the courtroom on 23 January yelling, "I'm innocent," reports IPI. He now faces the death penalty.

"The conviction is a joke," Nega told IPI. "No one takes it seriously. Meles Zenawi's regime conducts such sham trials to terrorise the people of Ethiopia into submission."

Two opposition members were also handed 17 and 19 years in prison during the same trial, news reports said, while several other journalists and editors are expected to be convicted of similar charges when they stand trial next month, report CPJ and EFJA.

Amnesty International says that in the past 11 months, the government has arrested at least 114 Ethiopian journalists and opposition politicians - "the most far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression seen in many years in Ethiopia."

And Ethiopia has driven more journalists into exile over the past decade than any other leader in the world, says CPJ.

Ethiopian journalists critical of the ruling party told IPI they believe that the use of terrorism charges against journalists and opposition members is meant to pre-empt any Arab Spring-style challenge to the party's more-than-20-year rule.

Even foreign journalists are not immune to prosecution. During a mission to Ethiopia, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) visited two Swedish journalists, Kontinent news agency reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, who were sentenced to 11 years in prison on 29 December on charges of "entering the country illegally and supporting terrorism." According to RSF, the two appealed to the President for a pardon, instead of appealing the conviction.

Since 2005, when an initial crackdown left 200 protesters dead and 30,000 detained, Zenawi has steadily closed political space, says Human Rights Watch. His party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won a landslide re-election in 2010, but observers said the vote was neither free nor fair.

Human Rights Watch found that Ethiopians and entire areas of the country are deliberately starved and excluded from benefits unless they back the government. The few independent organisations that monitor human rights have been decimated by government harassment, and a civil society law that bars them from working if they receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.

On 3 February, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal by one of Ethiopia's oldest human rights organisations, the Human Rights Council, that would enable it to access its bank accounts, which were frozen under the law. ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch have been working tirelessly with other rights organisations to repeal the law.

Worse still, says Human Rights Watch, the Meles regime uses foreign aid "to control people and crush dissent." Ethiopia is one of the world's largest recipients of development aid, receiving about $3 billion annually, with the European Union and the United States two of its largest donors. While the money does support basic services, it also "underwrites repression in Ethiopia," said Human Rights Watch.

"Donors who finance the Ethiopian state need to wake up to the fact that some of their aid is contributing to human rights abuses" and ensure this doesn't happen, said Human Rights Watch.

"The few independent organisations that monitored human rights have been eviscerated," Human Rights Watch added. "But these groups are badly needed to ensure aid is not misused."

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