Reporters Without Borders appealed today to the federal high court to show clemency towards 38 government opponents, including four journalists, for whom prosecutor Abraha Tetemke requested the death penalty on 9 July. The court is to pass sentence on 16 July.
“By demanding the death penalty for members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the prosecutor has confirmed to the international community that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government is trying to stifle all political opposition. The requested sentence is outrageous. The high court must disregard it, and show that Ethiopia is capable of respecting free expression.”
The defendants include Abay editor Mesfin Tesfaye, Ethiop editor Andualem Ayele, Asqual editor Wonakseged Zeleke and Dawit Fassil, the deputy editor of the now defunct weekly Satenaw, who was released on bail in April and then re-arrested.
Various unofficial sources have reported that negotiations were under way between the government and opposition leaders that could influence the outcome of the trial.
The high court decided that the defendants’ refusal to defend themselves in court was an admission of guilt and on 11 June found them guilty of “trying to overthrow constitutional rule.” Mesfin and Andualem initially faced the death penalty or life imprisonment for “inciting revolt” and “conspiracy to overthrow constitutional rule” while Wonakseged faced a 10-year prison sentence on the same charges and Dawit faced three years in prison for publishing inaccurate information.
The four journalists were arrested in the course of roundups carried out by the government in November 2005 in order to crack down on opposition protests against alleged fraud in the legislative elections that had just taken place. A total of 15 journalists are currently imprisoned in Ethiopia.