Washington, D.C. – Freedom Now welcomes the release of journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition politician Andualem Aragie from wrongful detention in Ethiopia. Both men received pardons on February 8, 2018 as part of a mass amnesty. Nega and Aragie were arrested in September 2011, charged with terrorism-related crimes, and sentenced to 18 years and life in prison, respectively.
“We are greatly relieved that Eskinder Nega and Andualem Araige, two courageous individuals imprisoned for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression and opinion, are now free,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “However, neither of these men should have been imprisoned. Their criticism of Ethiopia’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws has been echoed by the United Nations as well as international human rights groups. If Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is committed to respecting human rights, he will work to revise the anti-terrorism laws and ensure that all journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights defenders can operate in Ethiopia without fear of persecution.”
Eskinder Nega is one of Ethiopia’s most well-known journalists. Prior to his current detention, Nega was a widely published independent journalist and a well-known critic of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. As a result of his writings, the Ethiopian government has detained Nega at least eight times since 1993.
Nega’s most recent detention was related to an online column he published criticizing the prosecution of journalists and dissidents under Ethiopia’s overly-broad 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) and calling for an end to politically motivated prosecutions. In the months prior to his arrest, he had also written extensively about how an Arab Spring-like democracy movement might occur in Ethiopia.
On September 14, 2011, authorities arrested Nega and eventually charged him under the ATP and accused him of membership in the banned Ginbot 7 political party. The prosecution’s evidence included a series of nearly inaudible recordings, short video clips presented out of context, and some of Nega’s publications and interviews. In response, Nega admitted to writing the articles in question, but rejected any involvement in Ginbot 7 and reiterated that his writings only call for peaceful democratic reform in Ethiopia. Nega was convicted of terrorism charges on June 27, 2012 and the court sentenced him to 18 years in prison on July 13, 2012.
Freedom Now has served as Nega’s international pro bono counsel. In July 2012, Freedom Now filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Nega. The Working Group issued an opinion in April 2013 finding Ethiopia in violation of international law and calling for his release. Over the past six years, Freedom Now has undertaken a number of initiatives calling for Nega’s release, including a letter from members of the European Parliament, an appeal to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and a joint letter to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Most recently, in October 2016 we sent an appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.
Andualem Aragie Walle is a prominent opposition politician who served as the Vice President and Press Secretary for Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), the largest opposition party in Ethiopia, as well as on the executive committee of Medrek, the largest opposition coalition in Ethiopia. Aragie began his political career in 2000 as one of the founders of the Ethiopian Democratic Party. As part of the government crackdown following the 2005 elections, Aragie was imprisoned for more than two years along with more than 200 opposition party members. He was released in 2007 under a general amnesty. After his release, Aragie founded the UDJ and ran for parliament again in 2010.
On September 9, 2011, the UDJ hosted a news conference where Aragie criticized the ATP and admonished the Ethiopian government for its practice of imprisoning political opposition members under fabricated terrorism-related charges. He was arrested on September 14, 2011 and over the next several weeks, the Federal Police detained several more opposition party members as well as Eskinder Nega. Ultimately, 24 individuals were charged as co-defendants, but only eight were arrested, the rest tried in absentia.
On November 10, 2011, Aragie and his colleagues were charged with terrorism, treason, and espionage-related crimes. The trial included serious irregularities. The primary evidence presented against the co-defendants was scratchy, nearly inaudible recordings of telephone conversations. The key evidence against Aragie was recordings of speeches he made at public meetings calling for peaceful political reform. On June 27, 2012, the court found Aragie and his co-defendants guilty and on July 13, 2012, the court delivered prison sentences for each of the seven men ranging from 16 years to life.
Freedom Now filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Aragie in July 2016. The Working Group issued an opinion in September 2017 finding Ethiopia in violation of international law and called for his immediate release. The Working Group also criticized Ethiopia’s continued misuse of its anti-terrorism laws.