Ethiopia: Journos, politicians get jail time
Luc Van Kemenade
Addis Ababa - An Ethiopian judge handed down prison sentences ranging from 14 years to life to three journalists and two politicians.
The five were arrested last year and charged last week under Ethiopia's controversial anti-terrorism laws. Ethiopian officials had said they were involved in planning attacks on infrastructure, telecommunications and power lines.
Judge Endeshaw Adane gave the verdicts on Thursday.
Ethiopia's federal high court found Elias Kifle, editor-in-chief of a US-based opposition website, guilty of terrorism. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Kifle was tried in absentia.
The judge gave prison sentences of 14 years for Wubshet Taye, deputy editor-in-chief of the recently closed-down weekly Awramba Times, and Reeyot Alemu, a columnist of independent weekly Feteh.
Opposition politician Zerihun Gebre Egziabher was sentenced to 17 years in prison, and the other opposition member, Hirut Kifle, was sentenced to 19 years.
After hearing his punishment Zerihun turned to the judge and said: "I am innocent and I will prove it."
Reeyot's lawyer, Molla Zegeye, said his client will appeal. He also said he had never expected the sentence to be this severe.
"She didn't commit a terrorism crime. She is a professional journalist," he said of Reeyot.
The maximum sentence for terrorism under Ethiopia's anti terrorism laws is capital punishment.
Freedom of expression
International rights groups have been calling for the release of the journalists.
Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher, Claire Beston, said shortly after the sentencing that the five are jailed for political reasons and must be released "immediately and unconditionally".
"There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," she said. "They are being imprisoned on the basis of their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and involvement with calls for peaceful protest to take place."
Leslie Lefkow, Africa researcher for the US-based Human Rights Watch said: "This is a tragedy for these individuals, a miscarriage of justice and a dismal reflection of the state of the Ethiopian judiciary. It appears to be impossible to get a fair trial in a political case in Ethiopia today."
Ethiopia recently found two Swedish reporters guilty of supporting terrorism and sentenced them to 11 years imprisonment.
In a separate court case, blogger Eskinder Nega, who had called for peaceful protest, faces the maximum punishment, a death penalty sentence, after a judge on January 23 found him guilty on terror charges.
"I'm innocent," he yelled at reporters outside the courtroom after the hearing.
Ethiopia has arrested close to 200 people, among them journalists and opposition politicians and members, under last year's anti-terrorism proclamation.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world.