Home | News    Wednesday 11 May 2016

Rights body says Ethiopia using courts to crush dissent

By Tesfa-Alem Tekle

May 10, 2016 (ADDIS ABABA) – Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the government in Ethiopia of using the country’s courts as a tool to crush dissent.

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Activists’ poster protesting about the detention of Olbana Lelisa, a leader in the Oromo People’s Congress party (OPC), and Bekele Gerba, the deputy Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM)

In a report released on Monday, the US-based rights enity said the Ethiopian government is inexorably closing off ways for Ethiopians to peacefully express their grievances, not just with bullets but also through the courts.

Citing last week’s charges pressed against a prominent opposition politician, HRW said Ethiopian authorities have lodged new, politically motivated charges against prominent opposition politicians and others, accusing them of crimes under Ethiopia’s draconian counterterrorism law.

“Just last week, Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, the head of public relations for the opposition Semayawi Party (the Blue Party), was charged with planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of a terrorist act” HRW said.

Yonatan was arrested last year after posting anti-government comments on Facebook.

In his comments, Yonatan accused the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of using “force against the people instead of using peaceful discussion with the public”

The opposition politician was referring to government’s response to the deadly protests that have rocked larger parts of the Oromia region in protest to government’s plan to expand boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa, to parts of the Oromia region.

Ethiopian authorities argue that Yonatan’s Facebook comments were in pursuit of the objectives of a banned opposition movement Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

According to HRW the Ethiopian authorities brought the Febook posts as evidence and he could face 15 years to life in prison, if convicted.

Last week, Amnesty international said the Facebook activist is facing a possible death sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges and urged the government to immediately and unconditionally release him.

The latest HRW report also stated how Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromia’s largest registered political party, and 21 others, including many senior OFC members, were charged under the counterterrorism law in April, four months after their arrest on December 2015.

“Bekele is accused of having links with the banned Oromo Liberation Front, a charge frequently used by the government to target ethnic Oromo dissidents and others” it said.
The rights group said “Deeply committed to nonviolence, Bekele has consistently urged the OFC to participate in elections despite the ruling party’s iron grip on the polls”.

The rights group alleged that Bekele and the others have described horrible conditions during their detention, including at the notorious Maekelawi prison, where “torture and other ill-treatment are routine”

The report added that “The Ethiopian government is sending a clear message when it charges peaceful protesters and opposition politicians like Bekele Gerba with terrorism.

The Ethiopian government had long been under fire by a number of international human right groups for using the broadly defined anti-terrorism law as a tool to curb freedom of expression and silence opposition voices.

Opposition groups have also accused the government of using the terrorism law to punish critical journalists, opposition leaders, their members and supporters.