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Ethiopia's Anti-terrorism Law: Security or Silencing Dissent?

May 31, 2016
Voice of America

Salem Solomon

A prominent Ethiopian political opposition member sits in prison on charges of terrorism. He faces a long sentence and possibly the death penalty if convicted.

But the tool he is accused of using to commit the crime wasn't a gun or a bomb, and he isn't connected to any kind of religious extremism.

Instead, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Eleven statements from his Facebook page were used as evidence. His posts were critical of the way the Ethiopian government handled the crackdown during the protests throughout the Oromia region. The Ethiopian government charged him with planning or inciting terror acts.

In May, Yonatan's lawyer presented a statement to the court challenging the accusations and stating that Yonatan was only expressing his thoughts, which are protected by the constitution. His case is ongoing.

Increasing terrorism arrests

Yonatan's case is not unique in Ethiopia or across Africa where, according to Amnesty International, laws designed to prosecute terrorism are increasingly being used to silence political dissidents, opposition party members, journalists and others in civil society. Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have enacted similar laws in recent years.

Arrests and long pre-trial detentions are becoming increasingly common, and are worrying to Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes.

"[Yonatan] wasn't charged from December until the beginning of this month. And then, basically, he was charged with incitement, planning preparation, conspiracy and attempt to commit a terrorist act," she told VOA. "Obviously, Ethiopia, like us here in Kenya, has concerns about security. But to extend that to really silence legitimate dissent is not good."

Lewis Gordon is the executive director of the Environmental Defender Law Center, which helps people in developing countries who face threats due to advocacy for the environment or human rights. He said the Ethiopian law was enacted in 2009 as an anti-terror measure, but he believes its real aim was something different.