Ethiopia: Overturn blogger’s prison sentence
This statement originally appeared on PEN International’s website.
PEN has learned that blogger Zelalem Workagegnehu’s appeal against his sentence of five years and two months in prison on terrorism charges will be heard on July 6, 2016. Detained since July 2014, Workagegnehu was found guilty on April 15, 2016 of violating article 7(1) of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), and sentenced on May 10, 2016. PEN is deeply concerned by his sentencing as he appears to have been jailed for his peaceful activism on social media in violation of his right to freedom of expression, which is protected under both the Ethiopian Constitution (Article 29) and international human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is a state party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. PEN calls on the Ethiopian authorities to accept his appeal and overturn his conviction and sentence.
Send appeals to Ethiopian authorities:
- Expressing concern at the conviction and sentence imposed on Zelalem Workagegnehu on terrorism related charges and calling on the Ethiopian authorities to overturn his conviction at his appeal hearing on July 6, 2016;
- Calling on the Ethiopian authorities to drop all charges against writers, journalists and others currently being held or under investigation solely for their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression;
- Calling on the Ethiopian authorities to repeal or amend the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation so that it complies with Ethiopia’s obligations under international law regarding the freedom of opinion, expression and association;
- Calling on the Ethiopian authorities to investigate all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and bring anyone found responsible for abuses to justice.
Send appeals to:
Ministry of Justice
c/o the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the UN
Rue de Moillebeau 56, Case postale 338, 1211 Genève 19, Switzerland
Tel. +41 22 919 70 10, Fax +41 22 919 70 29
Salutation: Dear Minister
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Dr. Tedros Adhanom
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Tel: +251 11 551 7345
P.O. Box 393 Kirkos, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Salutation: Dear Excellency
Send a copy to the Embassy of Ethiopia in your country. You can find embassy addresses here. Please keep us informed of any action you take in regard to Zelalem Workagegnehu’s case, including any responses you receive from the authorities. Contact the PEN office in London if sending appeals after July 22, 2016.
Suggested tweet: #Ethiopian authorities should overturn blogger #ZelalemWorkagegnehu’s sentence at appeal hearing on July 6
Zelalem Workagegnehu (also known as Zola) is an Ethiopian blogger who contributed to the independent diaspora-based blog, De Birhan, which covers news related to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, as well as other news sites. Before his arrest he was preparing to launch a blog with his friends and was also studying for his Master’s degree.
He was arrested on July 8, 2014, during what the Committee to Protect Journalists described as a “mass crackdown on opposition leaders and social media activists ahead of the 2015 elections.” He was held without charge until October 2014 when he was finally charged under the ATP with terrorism-related offenses. His alleged activities included facilitating and organizing a digital security training in order to terrorize the country, being a member of the diaspora-based opposition group Ginbot 7 (which the government has designated a terrorist group) and using social media to recruit members for Ginbot 7, allegedly to bring about an Arab Spring-style revolution and violently dismantle the Ethiopian constitution. He was charged alongside a group of nine other defendants that included a number of active politicians and social media activists.
According to news reports, the digital security training that Workagegnehu organized did not end up taking place. Reports also indicated that no evidence was provided regarding his alleged links to Ginbot 7. Zelalem himself denied being affiliated with any political party and stated that he believes in non-violent change. According to a news report, one of the defendants that had originally been charged alongside Workagegnehu testified at a hearing that he had advised Workagegnehu to “confess” in order to avoid being beaten, as he himself was. Zelalem also suggested that the witness used by the prosecution was released after agreeing with the police to testify against him. According to reports, Workagegnehu’s lawyer was disqualified in June 2015 for one year and six months for “ethical issues” leading Workagegnehu to represent himself during the rest of his trial.
During his trial Workagegnehu claimed that he was kept in custody in an extremely cold room called “Siberia” in the notorious Maekelawi Detention Centre, where detainees are known to be tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and stated that his “confessions” were taken under duress and torture. News reports suggest that Workagegnehu suffers from severe eye pain due to the beatings he underwent. His friend and one of his co-defendants, Bahiru Degu, also claimed that he was beaten and forced to strip naked.
The charges against Zelalem Workagegnehu were eventually changed from Article 4 to Article 7 of the ATP and some of the accusations dropped, and he was found guilty on April 15, 2016 of violating Article 7(1), in relation to allegedly recruiting members for Ginbot 7. He was sentenced to five years and two months in prison on May 10, 2016 by the Lideta Federal High Court. Yoantan Wolde and Bahiru Degu, two of his friends and aspiring bloggers who were charged under his case file with applying to participate in Workagegnehu’s training, were acquitted on April 15, 2016 after spending more than 600 days in prison on terrorism-related charges. Two others were sentenced alongside Workagegnehu, and the other five were acquitted in August 2015. Workagegnehu was originally held in Kilinto prison but has reportedly been transferred to Zeway Prison, 140 km South of Addis Ababa. His appeal hearing is scheduled for July 6, 2016 and will be heard via TeleCourt, a videoconferencing and satellite internet remote trial system.
Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 and Freedom of Expression in Ethiopia
Since its enactment in 2009, the Ethiopian state has increasingly utilized its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 to arbitrarily arrest, prosecute and detain independent journalists and opposition activists. Human rights groups and civil society organisations have reported an increase in the use of the APT in recent months against journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and opposition politicians, on the heels of protests in the Oromia region. For example, Yonatan Tesfaye, former spokesman of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, was arrested in December 2015 and charged on May 4, 2016 with “incitement, planning, preparation, conspiracy and attempt” to commit a terrorist act, in relation to comments he posted on his own Facebook page in November 2015 against the government’s plans to extend the capital’s authority to the Oromia region; the government considers these comments to be in pursuit of the goals of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which it considers a terrorist group.
PEN is aware of at least four journalists in addition to Workageghnu who are currently detained/imprisoned in the country for supposed terrorism offences: Eskinder Nega (journalist for now-defunct political magazine Change), Woubshet Taye (deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times), Yusuf Getachew (editor of the now-defunct weekly newspaper Ye Muslimoch Guday [Muslim Affairs]) and most recently journalist Getachew Shiferaw (editor-in-chief of online newspaper Negere Ethiopia).
Solomon Kebede (managing editor of Ye Muslimoch Guday), detained since 2013 under the ATP, was sentenced in March 2016 but released in April 2016 as he had already served three years of his jail term. Nine bloggers and journalists, six of whom were members of the Zone 9 blog, were arrested and charged under the ATP in 2014 but the charges against some of them were withdrawn in July 2015 while the others were acquitted in October 2015. However, in December 2015 the Prosecutor appealed against the acquittal and bail of five of the bloggers, which is ongoing. Other members of the Zone 9 blog currently face travel restrictions, and one of the bloggers, Befekadu Hailu, is facing charges of inciting violence.
PEN believes that these journalists have been jailed because of their critical reporting and has long called for the ATP to be repealed or amended as its draconian restrictions are incompatible with Ethiopia’s obligations to protect freedom of expression. Actions classified as “terrorist” by the law would often not even be considered crimes outside of Ethiopia.
In general the situation for freedom of expression in the country remains severely restricted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 1, 2015, Ethiopia is the second worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.