(New York) -- Amnesty International today called the convictions of Ethiopian government opponents on trumped up terrorism and treason charges a "dark day" for freedom of expression.
Iconic dissident journalist Eskinder Nega and leading members of the political opposition, Andualem Arage and Nathnael Mekonnen, along with five other men, were found guilty of "terrorist acts," "encouragement of terrorism" and "high treason."
A further 16 men were found guilty in absentia, including several journalists and a human rights activist. The verdict follows the conviction of five dissidents on similar charges in January.
"This is a dark day for justice in Ethiopia, where freedom of expression is being systematically destroyed by a government targeting any dissenting voice," said Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher. "We believe that Eskinder, Andualem and Nathnael are prisoners of conscience -- convicted solely for their legitimate and peaceful activities. They should be released immediately and unconditionally."
The trial was marred by serious irregularities, including allegations of torture made by at least one defendant, which were not investigated. Statements on state T.V. by the prime minister pronouncing the guilt of the defendants violated their right to be presumed innocent and exerted significant political pressure on the court.
"We believe the defendants did not receive a fair trial; the verdict seemed to be a foregone conclusion," said Beston. "Evidence presented against Eskinder, Andualem and Nathnael did not demonstrate criminal wrongdoing, but showed their peaceful and legitimate activities."
Several pieces of evidence against Eskinder, a journalist who won this year's prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, centered on his discussion of whether last year's Middle East and North Africa uprisings could spread to Ethiopia.
A key part of the evidence against Eskinder and Andualem included impassioned speeches they had made about Ethiopians' need to struggle peacefully for freedom.
Amnesty International does not have full details of the activities and political affiliations of the other defendants in the case, largely due to the authorities' tight control of information dissemination. However, the flaws in the trial alone make their convictions unsound. Those defendants should be retried in a fair trial, or released.
Wednesday's verdict is the latest example of the Ethiopian authorities' ruthless crackdown on freedom of expression. It echoes the conviction of five dissidents, including three journalists and an opposition leader, given lengthy prison terms in January, also under the anti-terror law.
Both trials appear to have been motivated, at least in part, by the government's fear of popular protests breaking out.
"The government is not distinguishing between peaceful calls for reform and terrorist activities," added Beston. "In both trials, freedom of expression has been criminalized; the government is outlawing the legitimate activity of journalists and opposition members."
Attacks on freedom of expression also persisted outside the courtroom. In November, one of the last independent publications was forced to shut down and its editor fled the country after being threatened with arrest.
A few days later, the government activated a legal directive that compels printers to censor the content of the newspapers and publications they print. Printing firms are now obliged to remove any content that may be defined as illegal or problematic by the government.
"This move towards self-censorship is a further chilling example of the Ethiopian government's determination to stamp out any criticism of its actions," concluded Beston. "Authorities are ensuring it is not possible Ethiopians to hear or express dissent."
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.