Journalists, bloggers and activists arrested under new state of emergency

Expression

11 arrested at private meeting in Addis Ababa

11 journalists, bloggers and activists were arrested Ethiopian security forces on 25th March 2018, including recently released political prisoners.

Those arrested include journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesgen Desalegn, Zone9 bloggers Mahlet Fantahun, Befekadu Hailu, blogger Zelalem Workaggnhu and political activists Andualem Arage, Addisu Getinet, Yidnekachewu Addis, Sintayehu Chekol, Tefera Tesfaye and Woynshet Molla.

According to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), the arrests were carried out while they were attending a private meeting in Addis Ababa at the home of journalist Temesgen Desalegn. The private gathering was held in recognition of the recent release of thousands of political prisoners amidst ongoing and widespread protests against political marginalisation and land grabbing in the Oromia and Amhara regions which began in late 2015. They had also allegedly displayed a flag that differs from the official national banner at the meeting. The eleven are currently being held at Gotera-Pepsi Police Station in Addis Ababa.

Academics, journalists and others arrested in Bahir Dar

On 24th March 2018, around 19 people, including academics and journalist who had travelled to the Amhara regional state’s capital, Bahir Dar, to discuss the formation of a new political party, were arrested in Bahir Dar city. Some of them were allegedly ill-treated during the arrest process.

According to AHRE, among those arrested include Dr. Dessalegn Chane (a professor at Bahir Dar University), Gashawu Mersha, Yesuf Ibrahim (a lawyer and former university lecturer), Temesgen Tessema (a lecturer at Wolo University), Belete Molla (a lecturer at Addis Ababa.University), Nigatu Asress (a journalist at Amhara Regional TV), Belete Kassa (a former editor-in-chief of Qelem Qend newspaper) and Kassu Hailu (a lecturer at Enjibar University).

Arrest of Teshome Seyoum and Taye Dendea

On 8th March university lecturer and prominent blogger in Ethiopia, Teshome Seyoum was picked up by security forces at his home near the Woliso campus of Ambo University, where he lectures. According to reports, Teshome was due to appear in court 22nd March but the police failed to produce him. Teshome, who publishes the Ethiothinktank blog has been accused of using his social media accounts to "organize a group to instigate violence". He is currently being detained in the Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa. The facility is notorious for its use of torture and is earmarked for closure, as part of political reforms announced in January this year.

Taye Dendea, Head of Public Relations and Communications for the Oromia Justice Bureau, was arrested on 15th March after publicly stating in a radio interview that the killing of 15 people by Ethiopian federal forces in Moyale, southern Ethiopia, on 8th March was planned, and not a mistake, as the government had reported. He is also detained at Maekelawi Prison.

State of Emergency

The arrests follow the declaration of a national state of emergency on 16th February by the Cabinet for a period of six months, after Prime Minister and Chairman of the country's ruling coalition Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned.

The state of emergency includes a number of draconian and overbroad provisions. Among other worrying violations of fundamental democratic freedoms, the State of Emergency imposes a blanket ban on all protests, the dissemination of any publication deemed to “incite and sow discord” including those who criticise the state of emergency, and allows for warrantless arrest.

The Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia has urged the authorities to:

“Immediately and unconditionally release journalists, bloggers, political activists and peaceful protesters who were recently arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly [and] lift the ban on basic freedoms and fundamental rights that are enforced by the authorities and Command Post following the declaration of the state of emergency.”

As noted in the previous CIVICUS Monitor update, in January and February 2018, to quell massive anti-government protests, thousands of political prisoners were pardoned and released including journalists, activists and opposition leaders.

During the previous state of emergency between October 2016 and August 2017, the authorities arrested thousands of people including politicians, journalists and activists, many on trumped up terrorism charges. They were also reports that their trials were marked by prolonged pre-trial detention, undue delays and persistent complaints of torture and other ill-treatment. The police and army continued to enjoy impunity for human rights violations committed.

Cautious optimism as ruling party names new leader

On 27th and 28th March 2018, the BBC, Al Jazeera and others reported that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) had elected Dr. Abiy Ahmed as its new leader following a closed meeting of 170 of the party's senior leadership. The announcement was greeted by a sense of guarded optimism from some opposition leaders in Ethiopia. Dr. Ahmed, who is 42, is a former minister and is now likely to become Ethiopia's first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group. That fact is seen as significant by some who hope that his appointment is a recognition by the ruling party that he it has to do more to address the grievances of groups in Oromiya region who have been protesting against the government in large numbers since 2015.