Urging the Ethiopian government to act with the “utmost prudence,” Reporters Without Borders today said it would pay close attention throughout the judicial proceedings in which 131 detained government opponents and critics including 13 journalists are to be tried in Addis Ababa for allegedly fomenting an insurrection.
The press freedom organisation also called on the United Nations to send a legal observation mission to Ethiopia to assess the validity of the charges, monitor respect for due process at the coming mass trial, and report back to the UN Security Council.
“The charges of high treason and genocide are extremely grave as regards the journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We call on the Ethiopian government to show the utmost transparency in these cases. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should not try to defuse the criticism against him at the expense of the freedom or lives of citizens.”
“In order to be able to establish whether the proceedings are credible and whether or not the Ethiopian government has something to hide,” the organisation added, “the Security Council must be given detailed information about this coming political trial, of which the motives - as far as we know right now - are disturbing, to say the least.”
According to information that has been cross-checked by Reporters Without Borders, a total of 17 journalists are currently detained in Ethiopia, which makes it Africa’s biggest prison for the press.
The organisation also condemned prison sentences imposed in the past two weeks on three journalists on old charges: Wosonseged Gebrekidan, editor of the weekly Addis Zena and former editor of the weekly Ethiop (who faces further charges as a member of the group of 131); Getachew Simie of the weekly Addis Admas, who is the former editor of Agere, a weekly that no longer exists; and Leykun Engeda, the former editor of Dagim Wonchif, another weekly that is now defunct.
Additionally, Reporters Without Borders reiterated its call for the release of two journalists with the Oromo-language service of the state-owned Ethiopian Television (ETV), Shiferraw Insermu and Dhabassa Wakjira, who are accused of being informers for the armed separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and have been held without trial since 22 April 2004. (The OLF opposes domination by the Amhara and Tigrean minorities and is fighting for an independent Oromo state in the south.)
The 131 opposition leaders, civil society representatives and journalists who were detained in a crackdown in November are due to appear at a hearing today before the Addis Ababa federal high court at which they will be formally notified of the charges against them and their lawyers will submit applications for their release on bail.
The 13 journalists in this group are all editors of privately-owned, Amharic-language weeklies. They are Dawit Kedebe, the editor of Hadar, and his deputy Feleke Tibebu, who were arrested on 2 November; Fassil Yenealem, the managing editor of Addis Zena, and his editor, Wosonseged Gebrekidan (mentioned above); Zekarias Tesfaye, the managing editor of Netsanet, and his deputy editor, Dereje Abtewold, who surrendered to the police on 9 November; Andualem Ayale, the editor of Ethiop; Nardos Meaza, the editor of Satenaw; Mesfin Tesfaye, the editor of Aday; Wonakseged Zeleke, the editor of Asqual; Eskinder Nega, the owner of the Serkalem Publishing Enterprise, which publishes Asqual, Menelik and Satenaw, and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, Menelik’s editor, who were arrested on 27 November; and lastly Sisay Agena, the managing editor of Ethiop and head of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, who was arrested on 29 November after his sister and wife were detained to make them say where he was hiding.
The journalists were all arrested in the aftermath of the deadly clashes between police and protesters in November, along with leaders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), human rights activists and civil society representatives accused by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of launching an uprising.
From 1 November, the police used violence to disperse demonstrations being organised by the CUD in Addis Ababa and several provincial cities in protest against the results of the 15 May legislative elections, in which the ruling party took two thirds of the seats in parliament. The CUD accused Meles’ Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of rigging the vote count and urged its supporters to take to the streets to demand justice. A total of 48 people were killed and 200 were injured in the ensuing clashes, and at least 11,000 people were detained.
A total of 15 separate charges, including conspiracy, armed insurrection, attempting to subvert the constitution, high treason and genocide, were presented in court by prosecutors on 16 December against the 131 high-profile detainees, who include 19 CUD leaders (10 of them parliamentarians). They also include three journalists whom Reporters Without Borders has been unable to identify.
The details of the sentences imposed earlier this month on Wosonseged, Getachew and Leykun are as follows. Wosonseged (one of the journalists arrested in the November raids), was sentenced on 6 December to eight months in prison on a libel charge dating back to 2002, when he was Ethiop’s editor. Getachew was sentenced on 7 December to three months in prison for libel. And Leykun was given a 15-month prison sentence on 9 December on a charge of publishing a false report dating back to 1999.
“In a country with repressive legislation and opposition newspapers beset by lawsuits, these cases seem to have been revived just to punish publications that dare to criticise,” Reporters Without Borders said. It added: “The fact that Wosonseged’s lawyer was not told that the case was coming to trial and was therefore not present at the hearing tends to prove this.”