Letter from Ethiopia: Regarding The Case Against Eskinder Nega

Former journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, left, with Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega’s wife, at last year's PEN America annual gala dinner in New York on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012. (Tadias Magazine file)

Tadias Magazine

Published: Friday, February 1, 2013

New York (TADIAS) – Fairness, justice, forgiveness, equality before the law, and deference for the sanctity of life and human dignity are not foreign concepts to the diverse nationalities, cultures and religions that make up the modern Ethiopian mosaic, but it is not encouraging to see the legal language justifying the continued imprisonment of a number of Ethiopian journalists on the grounds that the nation’s current administration of justice meets international standards.

In a recent paper entitled Information on the Allegations Concerning the Arbitrary Detention of Mr. Eskinder Nega, Ethiopian legal experts wrote a 19-page response to the 16 members of the European Parliament who urged Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn back in December to consider the release of the imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega. In the document, shared with Tadias, Ethiopian officials explain to the European MPs that their actions are anchored in international law.

“The trial process of Mr. Eskinder Nega demonstrates that due process guarantees were ensured in keeping with domestic legislations and international standards as enshrined in the ICCPR and other relevant human rights instruments to which Ethiopia is a party,” the document said. “International human rights law does not prohibit prosecution of members of terrorist organisations or those who support cooperate and assist terrorism by any means. Rather, it prohibits any form of discrimination and impunity of prosecution.”

This is open to interpretation, however, and it is apparently constitutional to brand citizens as terrorists for their critical views and subject them to arbitrary arrest and detention. It is illegal for writers, journalists, columnists, bloggers, and others with opposing perspectives to share unapproved observations with any audience if it touches upon subjects decrying abuses of power and corruption.

“The Constitution of Ethiopia strictly prohibits deprivation of rights or liberty without due process of law except on such grounds and in accordance with clearly established law,” the text continued. “This has been witnessed during the trial process of Mr. Eskinder Nega.”

The legal brief includes a twenty-six point argument covering topics including background of the case and pretrial detention, the charge brought against the defendant, the trial, observance of the right to legal counsel, as well as the accused’s right to visitations, and the appeals process in which Eskinder was actively involved.

In its opening paragraph the brief also highlights the individual freedoms and rights enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. “No one can be deprived of his liberty for exercising his freedom of expression or being a critique of the Government,” it declared.

“Ethiopia is a country governed by of rule of law. All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.”

Then why are Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Wubishet Taye and others languishing in jail separated from their families and friends? Why are they not able to practice journalism?

The brief also argues that in Eskinder’s case he was charged for conspiring to cause violence in collaboration with an illegal organization, noting that “Mr. Eskinder Nega was found guilty by court of law for involvement in a conspiracy to commit a crime of terrorism as an accomplice with a clandestine and terrorist organization named Ginbot 7 which has publically declared its intention to overthrow the democratically elected Government of Ethiopia through assassination of government officials, destroying public property, destabilizing peace and constitutional order of Ethiopia.”

“The Federal Prosecutor, after meticulously investigating Mr. Eskinder Nega’s participation in terrorism and ensuring the presence of ample evidence, requested the Federal First Instance Court in Addis Ababa for an arrest and search warrant.”

The document added: “Cognizant of its responsibility not to arrest, search or seize a person’s property contrary to the law, police arrested the defendant, searched and seized the relevant property of evidentiary significance after securing arrest and search warrant from the Federal First Instance Court. His house was searched and relevant evidences found were seized by court warrant issued by the Federal Court in accordance with article 26 (3) of the Constitution and article 19 of the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The defendant promptly brought before a court of law within 48 hours in accordance with article 14(3)(c) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 19 and 20(1) of the FDRE Constitution and tried without undue delay.”

The legal brief makes no mention of Ethiopia’s tradition of pardoning prisoners, most recently approved by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi before he passed away on August 20th, 2012, which freed over 1,900 inmates including two Swedish journalists — reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson — who were jailed for assisting members of the outlawed rebel group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

As always, we remain hopeful that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Ethiopian journalists still incarcerated. And once more, we call upon PM Hailemariam Desalegn who was recently elected as the new chairman of the African Union to lead the AU by example by helping to remove his country from the list of Africa’s top jailers of journalists — a distinction Ethiopia currently shares along with Eritrea as the only two African countries spotlighted as the world’s top ten leading press offenders.

MEPs urge Ethiopia to release journalist (The Guardian)
Letter from 16 Members of the European Parliament (Press Release)
Ethiopia pardons two jailed Swedish journalists (Reuters)
Country List of Top 10 ‘Jailers of Journalists’ (CPJ)

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