An Ethiopian court convicted prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, along with a group of others including political dissidents and activists, on terrorism charges Wednesday, alarming human rights groups.
"This is a dark day for justice in Ethiopia, where freedom of expression is being systematically destroyed by a government targeting any dissenting voice," Amnesty International Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston said.
Two dozen people were convicted in the terrorism case Wednesday in Addis Ababa, most of them found guilty in absentia.
Ethiopian media reported that the defendants had been accused of ties to several groups, including Ginbot 7, an outlawed political party that was labeled a terrorist group last year.
Prosecutor Michael Tekilo told the official Ethiopian News Agency that the defendants had been getting military training from Eritrea, Ethiopia's archenemy, and had been planning to assassinate government officials. Eskinder and opposition member Andualem Arage were also accused of invoking the "Arab Spring" uprisings to stir protests against the government, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.
"There is no way other than democratic elections to attain power in the country, and what they said is clearly against the constitution," Judge Endeshaw Adane was quoted as saying by AFP. "Freedom of speech can be limited when it used to undermine security and not used for the public interest."
Though Eskinder and the rest of the defendants could have faced the death penalty under the terrorism law, prosecutors reportedly recommended maximum sentences of life in prison instead.
The Ethiopian terrorism law has been criticized by free-speech groups as repressive and overly vague. After several opposition groups were labeled terrorists, "any journalist who interviewed party members faced possible arrest on terrorism charges," according to the nonprofit group Freedom House.
Eskinder, who was arrested last year after publishing an article questioning arrests under the disputed law, is one of 11 independent journalists and bloggers charged with terrorism in Ethiopia since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is known as one of Ethiopia's foremost advocates of press freedom.
Amnesty International argued that Eskinder and two dissidents were “convicted solely for their legitimate and peaceful activities." What happened in the other cases is unclear, the human rights group said, adding that the trial was so flawed the convictions shouldn’t stand.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Defense lawyer Abebe Guta talks to reporters Wednesday after a court in Addis Ababa found his 24 clients guilty on charges of terrorism. Credit: Jenny Vaughan / AFP/Getty Images