Early on July 9, guards in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, told Reeyot Alemu to pack up her bags. After four years in prison, she was going home.
Reeyot is one of six journalists, including two bloggers from the Zone 9 blogging collective, released on July 8 and 9. Their only crime was exercising their right to free expression. The timing of the high-profile releases should come as no surprise, given President Barack Obama’s current trip to Ethiopia.
Reeyot’s arrest in June 2011—along with that of fellow journalist Woubshet Taye, who remains behind bars—marked the start of a spate of arrests of journalists, activists, and other peaceful dissenters under the country’s deeply flawed Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch and other groups had warned before the passage of the law in 2009 about the overly broad provisions relating to “terrorist acts” and “encouragement of terrorism,” as well as the provision for up to four months in pretrial detention.
As anticipated, the authorities repeatedly misused the provisions to give a legal veneer to their increasing clampdown on dissent.
The Misuse of Law
The government has often brushed aside criticism of the anti-terrorism law, contending that it was largely inspired by similar legislation in key partner countries, notably the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s high time to dispel such arguments, and President Obama’s visit would be a good time for him to say so. In a country where people are regularly charged with terrorism for peaceful dissent and expression, and where the courts are under the thumb of a government bent on silencing criticism, this law will be abused time and time again.
Since 2009, the Ethiopian authorities have charged or convicted on trumped-up charges at least 13 other journalists, including a prominent government critic, Eskinder Nega, and four other bloggers from Zone 9. They continue to languish in prison.
In the meantime, away from the spotlight and the euphoria over the releases, the country’s courts continue to hand down sentences against peaceful dissent under the anti-terrorism law.