A well-known Ethiopian journalist was sentenced Friday to 18 years in prison, one in a group of two dozen dissidents and activists convicted on terrorism charges after a deeply disputed trial.
Journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and 23 others were accused of trying to topple the government through ties to banned groups, including an outlawed political party that was labeled a terrorist organization last year. Ethiopian prosecutors also accused Eskinder and other defendants of trying to foment violence by invoking the "Arab Spring" protests that rocked the Middle East.
Ethiopian media reported that the defendants will face from eight years to life in prison under sentences handed down Friday, including a life sentence for opposition leader Andualem Arage. Most of the defendants are living in exile and were sentenced in absentia.
"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," presiding Judge Endeshaw Adane was quoted as saying by Reuters.
At the time of the conviction, the court said free speech could be limited when it undermined security.
Free speech groups denounced the jail terms and slammed the Ethiopian terrorism law as excessively vague and repressive, leaving journalists who merely interview dissidents vulnerable to arrest. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the trial in Addis Ababa was troublingly flawed.
“The Ethiopian government clearly means to send a signal to its people: Speak against us, and you too could be jailed as a terrorist,” said Peter Godwin, president of the PEN American Center, an anti-censorship group that honored Eskinder with its Freedom to Write award earlier this year.
After the sentencing, defense lawyer Abebe Guta told the Agence France-Presse news service that Eskinder would appeal his sentence, while his other clients were considering whether to do so.
At least 11 independent journalists and bloggers have been convicted under the terrorism law since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which also condemned the sentences.
Before his arrest in September, Eskinder penned a column questioning the arrest of another dissident accused of terrorism, saying the idea that a frail, easygoing man under heavy police scrutiny was conspiring with extremists “defies logic.” Yet he ended on a hopeful note.
“Tyranny is in retreat everywhere. It has lost one of its two last great bastions, the Arab world. The momentum is now on the side of freedom,” Eskinder wrote.
— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Defense lawyer Abebe Guta talks to reporters at a court in Addis Ababa on Friday. Credit: Jenny Vaughan / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images