1 May 2012

Joint action

Thirty-two IFEX members urge authorities to release journalist Eskinder Nega

(PEN American Center/IFEX) - The following is a letter to the authorities signed by 32 IFEX members calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Eskinder Nega, and an end to the use of national security legislation against all writers and journalists:

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa
Fax: +251 155 20 30

Minister of Justice Berhanu Hailu
Ministry of Justice
P.O. Box 1370
Addis Ababa
Fax: +251 11 551 7775/ 7755

May 1, 2012

Your Excellencies,

On Tuesday, May 1, 2012, Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega will receive in absentia the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in New York. On the eve of this important occasion, we the undersigned members and partners of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) call on you to facilitate his immediate and unconditional release and end all efforts at prosecution for his critical writings.

Eskinder Nega, who had previously been imprisoned at least six times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his work as a journalist, was arrested on September 14, 2011, after he published a column questioning the government's claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticizing the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu on terror charges earlier that week. Nega was accused of affiliation with banned political party Ginbot 7, and state television portrayed him and other political prisoners as “spies for foreign forces.”

Nega was among 24 defendants charged on November 10, 2011. He stands accused of receiving weapons and explosives from neighboring Eritrea in order to carry out terrorist acts in Ethiopia. Nega's trial for charges under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which criminalizes any reporting deemed to “encourage” or “provide moral support” to groups and causes which the government considers to be “terrorist,” began on March 6. The prosecution's evidence against Nega and the 23 other defendants has consisted of nearly inaudible recordings of telephone conversations and other comments and video of a town hall meeting in which Nega discusses the differences between Arab countries and Ethiopia. On March 28, Nega took the stand and denied all charges against him, saying that he has never conspired to overthrow the government through violence and admitting only to reporting on the Arab Spring and speculating on whether a similar movement would take place in Ethiopia.

We understand that the trial is due to conclude on May 11, 2012, and that there is a possibility that he could face the death penalty if convicted. Nega is currently being held at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa, where political prisoners are housed with criminals. Family visits are extremely limited.

Nega is one of five journalists to have been imprisoned under Ethiopia's 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in the last year. Woubshet Taye and Reyot Alemu are now serving 14-year sentences, and Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johann Persson are now serving 11-year sentences after they were arrested last year in the company of rebels in the Ogaden region.

We believe Eskinder Nega is being prosecuted in violation of his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. We therefore call for Eskinder Nega's immediate and unconditional release, and urge you to end the use of national security legislation against all writers and journalists.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this critical matter.

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