NEW YORK—The re-arrest and inhumane detention of 2012 Freedom to Write Award honoree Eskinder Nega is an outrageous attack on the right of free expression in Ethiopia, and contravenes all recent positive progress the government has made toward creating a safe environment for independent voices, said PEN America in a statement today.

Eskinder, who had just been released from prison amid a wave of pardons in February, was detained on March 25, alongside the prominent journalist Temesghen Desalegn and bloggers Zelalem Workagegnehu, Befekadu Hailu, and Mahlet Fantahun. They had gathered in a private house without prior authorization—which is not allowed under the current state of emergency regulations—and had displayed a prohibited national flag. However, none of the detainees has yet been charged, and their treatment in detention continues to deteriorate. In Eskinder Nega’s own words, as reported to PEN America, “[o]ur condition in prison is inhuman, to say the least. Better to call it [j]am-packed than imprisoned. About 200 of us are packed in a 5 by 8 meter room divided in three sections. Unable to sit or lay down comfortably, and with limited access to a toilet. Not a single human being deserve[s] this regardless of the crime, let alone us who were captured unjustly. The global community should be aware of such case[s] and use every possible means to bring an end to our suffering immediately.”

Eskinder’s re-arrest comes on the heels of the February 15 resignation of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who was responsible for the pardons of more than 700 political prisoners. Following Desalegn’s departure, a state of emergency was declared which includes provisions to limit the rights of free expression, prohibits criticism of the State of Emergency Proclamation itself, and prevents federal and regional media outlets from reporting on the state of emergency without prior authorization. Prime Minister-Elect Abiye Ahmed is expected to be sworn in on April 2.

“The arrest of Eskinder Nega and other previously imprisoned bloggers, journalists, and activists demonstrates that despite their recent overtures toward credible reform efforts, the Ethiopian government has no intention of softening their brutal suppression of free speech,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “For ​Eskinder, his freedom was an opportunity to immediately take back up the fight for a more democratic Ethiopia, ​despite the continued risks; it is a testament to his courage and his ​commitment to the ideals of free expression and democracy​. PEN America therefore calls for Eskinder and his colleagues to be immediately released from prison, and for the Ethiopian government to commit to upholding basic human rights.”

Eskinder Nega has been a staunch advocate for free expression since returning to Ethiopia after attending high school and college in the United States in the 1980s. Upon his return, Eskinder began publishing articles calling for an end to political corruption and repression in a series of now-banned news outlets, facing constant harassment and a series of detentions over the course of the next two decades. In 2012, he was convicted of a spurious violation of an anti-​terrorism law widely applied in Ethiopia to silence political dissent and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, serving more than six years of this sentence before being released in February 2018. He had not yet been able to reunite with his wife and child, who live in the United States. ​


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: [email protected]