Washington, D.C. – Freedom Now welcomes the release of opposition politician Yonatan Tesfaye from wrongful detention in Ethiopia. He was arrested in December 2015 and charged with terrorism-related crimes for a series of Facebook posts he made criticizing the Ethiopian government. He is one of many opposition politicians and activists arrested by the Ethiopian government since protests in the Oromia region began in November 2015.
“The release of Yonatan Tesfaye is a hopeful sign that the Ethiopian government is committed to genuine reform,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “We are encouraged by this development as well as the recent release of Eskinder Nega, Anduaelm Aragie, and Bekele Gerba and the withdrawal of remaining charges against Zone 9 blogger Atnafu Berhane. We call on the Ethiopian government to build on these positive steps and release all political prisoners, immediately address the deficiencies in the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and other repressive laws, and ensure that recently released opposition politicians, activists, and journalists are able to conduct their work without fear of threats or harassment. By taking these steps, the Ethiopian government will continue on the long road to respecting the human rights of its citizens.”
Tesfaye is the official spokesperson and the youth affairs head for the Blue Party, an opposition political party which promotes nonviolent social and political change and unity among ethnic, religious, regional and linguistic lines. In 2015, he was one of the party’s candidates for a seat in parliament. During his campaign he was interviewed by NPR for an article where he is quoted as saying that the Blue Party’s goal is to become an “umbrella for people to voice their discontent.”
Tesfaye was arrested in December 2015, however he was not officially charged until March 2016. He was one of many opposition politicians and activists who were arrested during a government crackdown started in November 2015 during the government’s heavy-handed response to student protests which began in the Oromia region and spread nationally. The protestors were primarily concerned about a government-sponsored initiative which would expand the municipal boundary of the capital Addis Ababa far into Oromia. This rapid growth caused many to worry about the possible displacement of farmers without compensation and that the new Addis Ababa municipality would operate independently from the Oromia regional government. The Oromia regional security forces mainly responded to the first few weeks of protests, with the assistance of the federal police in some locations. The security forces regularly arrested and beat protesters, many of whom were primary and secondary school students, and there were some reports of live ammunition being used. The response from security forces shifted and escalated dramatically after former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s December 16, 2015 statement that the government “will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilizing the area.” The government then deployed military forces throughout Oromia and responded to the protests with a military operation. By October 2016, Human Rights Watch estimated that the crackdown resulted in over 500 deaths, tens of thousands of arrests, and hundreds of enforced disappearances.
During Tesfaye’s pre-trial detention he was kept incommunicado, abused, beaten, and kept in solitary confinement. He was forced to sign a false confession during this time. The eventual charge against Tesfaye, which came under the controversial 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), was for inciting terrorism. The prosecution’s evidence was eleven pages of Facebook posts Tesfaye made dating back to 2008 in which he commented on a number of topics, including condemnations of the killing of Oromo students by the Ethiopian authorities, and calls for the protests to lead to a transitional government. The evidence presented to the court was summaries of these posts, not direct quotations.
In May 2016, Tesfaye was convicted under a different article in the ATP – “encouragement of terrorism.” He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. In November 2017, an appeals court reduced Tesfaye’s sentence to three years and six months.