Wednesday, May 15, 2013
By Martin Schibbye and Patrick Griffith This month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend the 21st African Union (AU) summit. The message he brings will speak volumes about the future of American engagement on the continent. In announcing the visit during a U.S. Senate hearing last month, Mr. Kerry expressed concern about the potentially negative impact of China's and Iran's increased presence in Africa. He noted that graft and poor development choices could undermine the stability of some African governments, and he acknowledged the need for more U.S. engagement. Further American cooperation on development and security would be good news for Africa. But the U.S. must continue to focus on another potentially destabilizing factor in the continent: ongoing violations of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Since their inception, the AU and its precursor, the Organization of African Unity, have embraced the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The African Charter on Human and People's Rights expressly protects a raft of basic human rights, including freedom of association, free expression and political participation. But despite these affirmations, the protection of such rights remains inconsistent across AU nations. Some governments continue to ignore certain provisions entirely. If he needs an example, Mr. Kerry need only look out his window in Addis Ababa. This month the Ethiopian Supreme Court upheld an 18-year prison sentence against independent journalist Eskinder Nega. Though the Ethiopian government is often touted as a close U.S. partner on security and poverty-reduction efforts, it has a dreadful record on rights. After parliamentary elections in 2005, the government jailed opposition leaders such as former judge Birtukan Mideksa and independent journalists who reported on the post-election unrest. Mr. Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil, herself a prominent publisher, were among those arrested. They spent 17 months in a detention center on trumped-up charges of treason and genocide before they were finally released. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, Ms. Fasil was denied prenatal care for seven months and gave birth to their son Nafkot while in custody. In the spring of 2011, as popular uprisings gathered momentum across North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Nega wrote extensively about their possible impact on Ethiopia. Despite warnings that he was going too far, Mr. Nega continued to write and speak publicly, often criticizing the government and calling for democratic reforms, while emphasizing the importance of nonviolence. But like fellow journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, and opposition activists such as Andualem Aragie, Mr. Nega was charged in September 2011 under Ethiopia's widely criticized 2009 Antiterrorism Proclamation. He now faces 18 years in prison. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has expressed grave alarm at Ethiopia's persecution of journalists and peaceful activists. In April the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also weighed in, declaring Mr. Nega's detention illegal under international law and calling for his immediate release. But these admonitions have so far not convinced Ethiopian authorities to change course. When U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his administration's agenda for sub-Saharan Africa last summer, he emphasized strong democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law, noting that these promote both prosperity and stability. But as long as journalists and political activists are imprisoned for speaking their truth to power, such principles will remain illusory. Mr. Kerry has an important opportunity this month to convey that very message to his counterparts in Addis Ababa. Mr. Nega and his colleagues deserve nothing less. Mr. Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who was detained in Ethiopia for 14 months under the country's antiterror laws and held at Kaliti Prison with Eskinder Nega. Mr. Griffith is an attorney with Freedom Now, a legal advocacy organization that works to free prisoners of conscience, including Mr. Nega.
Friday, May 3, 2013
Today, Freedom Now, Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the Committee to Free Eskinder Nega, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, English PEN, the International Press Institute, the International Women’s Media Foundation, Media Legal Defence Initiative, the National Press Club, PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, condemned the decision by the Ethiopian Supreme Court upholding the 18-year sentence imposed against independent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega. "By upholding the sentence, the Ethiopian government has missed yet another opportunity to respect its freely undertaken obligations under international law,” the groups said. “This failure is particularly striking in light of today’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations." "By misusing anti-terror legislation to stifle the peaceful work of journalists like Mr. Nega and his colleagues Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, the government has, unfortunately, demonstrated that it is willing to disregard the legitimate rights of the Ethiopian people and undermine the credibility of international efforts to address real security threats in the region, all in an attempt to silence critical voices in the country. It is time for the international community to make it clear to the government in Addis Ababa that such violations will no longer be tolerated." The decision upholding the verdict came yesterday after the Supreme Court postponed the appeal proceedings on seven separate occasions. Mr. Nega, who has been detained by the government eight times because of his journalism, was arrested on September 14, 2011 after he authored a series of articles and spoke publicly about the possible implications of the Middle East and North African-style popular uprising spreading to Ethiopia. Authorities held Mr. Nega without access to family for nearly one month and without access to an attorney for nearly two months. At trial, Mr. Nega admitted criticizing the government but affirmed that his writings only called for peaceful democratic reform in the country. He was convicted on June 27, 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison on July 13, 2012. After his sentencing, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that the continued imprisonment of Mr. Nega violates Ethiopia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party, and called for his immediate release.