After a lengthy trial which took almost two years, the Third Criminal Bench of Federal High Court yesterday sentenced the prominent Ethiopian journalist and blogger, Eskinder Nega, to 18 years of rigorous imprisonment on charges of having illegal links to a terrorist group.
Similarly, the court handed down sentences ranging from eight years to life imprisonment to other 23 journalist and activists on the same count. All of the defendants were found guilty last month after being charged with establishing links with the US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, which was declared to be a terrorist organization by Parliament last year.
Opposition leader Andualem Arage (Unity for Democracy and Justice UDJ) was given a life sentence by the court while Berhanu Nega, Andargachew Tsige, Fasil Yenalem also received similar prison terms in absentia.
Similarly, Mesfin Negash and Abyie Teklemariam, who are editors of Addis Neger online, each received eight years of prison sentence in absentia. The US-based ESAT journalists and activists, Abebe Gelaw and Abebe Belew, each received 15 years sentence in their absence.
Meanwhile, an activist Obang Meto, former opposition party leader Tsegaselassie Zelelaie, Wube Robe and UDJ’s Natnael Mekonnen also got 18 years each. Kinfemichael Debebe (kesto) is also another defendant who received a steep prison term.
During the announcement of the sentence both Eskinder and Andualem appeared to be relatively calm and showed no reaction. Eskinder looked as if he was gracefully accepting the sentencing and glanced towards his wife while the judge read out the sentence. Andualem also nodded to his family after the judge finished reading the sentencing.
But the courtroom became dead silent in what appeared to be a sign of surprise when the judge read out the sentence that was handed down to Abebe Gellaw, who recently heckled Prime Minister Meles Zenawi while the latter was delivering a speech at a meeting on the sideline of the G8 summit in Washington in May. In May, Eskinder was awarded the Pen America's Freedom to Write award for his work.
"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," presiding Judge Endeshaw Adane said.
The court was relatively quiet and calm unlike previous sessions. The presence of the diplomatic community in the courtroom was also lower than usual.
The politicians were charged with direct conspiracy and collaborating with Ginbot 7, while the journalists were mainly accused of inciting violence through their writing.
Human rights groups have criticized Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation, on basis of which the above personalities were charged, for being too draconian an instrument to suppress political dissidents.