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Ethiopia: New trial for bloggers accused of encrypting messages flies in the face of justice

Amnesty International UK
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The Ethiopian Supreme Court’s ruling today that two bloggers who were facing terrorism charges under the draconian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) should face a new trial for offences against the Constitution, including encrypting messages, flies in the face of justice, said Amnesty International today.Ethiopia's Zone9 bloggers says "thank you"

The court ruled that, although the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to support terrorism charges against Nathnael Feleke and Atnaf Birhane (members of the Zone 9 Bloggers Collective), it had presented enough to support charges of “provocation and preparation to commit or support outrages against the Constitution or the Constitutional Order.”

Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said:

“Learning how to encrypt messages is not a crime, but a freedom protected under the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

“The court’s reasoning that the bloggers confession as to having taken training on ‘security-in-a-box,’ as well as on campaigning, monitoring demonstrations and leadership, demonstrates their malicious intention against the government is not only ridiculous, but also inconsistent with their human rights as guaranteed under the Ethiopian Constitution, as well as regional and international standards.”

Security-in-a-Box is a guide to digital security widely used by activists and human rights defenders.

Amnesty International calls on the Ethiopian authorities to immediately drop the charges against Nathnael Feleke and Atnaf Birhane.

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Ethiopia: The world is watching and time is running out

by Adotei Akwei and Miho Mitobe | Amnesty International USA

Restricts access to information for the Ethiopian people

At the end of 2016 Amnesty International published a report titled Ethiopia Offline: Evidence of Social Media Blocking and Internet Censorship in Ethiopia. This report documented how social media and networks in Addis Ababa and the Oromia region were being blocked by the Ethiopian government. Among the more alarming findings is that AI and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), who co-authored the report, detected the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which can be used to monitor and filter internet traffic. The Ethiopian government appears to be using the technology for “mass surveillance internet censorship.” The government’s actions constitute a violation of Ethiopia’s obligations to protect freedom of expression under the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and also drastically restricts access to information for the Ethiopian people.The internet crackdown is linked to a brutal crackdown by the government in response to protests that started in the Oromo region in November 2015 against the Addis Ababa City Integrated Development Master Plan. This led to nationwide protests following a stampede in Oromia region on October 2, 2016 that followed attacks on foreign and local businesses. In response to the attacks and the protests, the Ethiopian government declared a State of Emergency (SOE) on October 9, 2016. The government declared that under the SOE they could “restrict freedom of expression where such freedom is abused”, and imposed a wide range of restrictions on internet access.  The government also arrested more than 11,000 people charging them with “violence and property damage.”

Based on the standards of the ICCPR, the State of Emergency in Ethiopia has resulted in many derogations that fail to meet international human rights law. For example, the Ethiopian government established a Command Post whose purpose was to “stop any media, prohibit any assembly and search and seize any person or place.”  Under the SOE, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter were either blocked or inaccessible in Ethiopia, especially in the Oromia region. Further, certain types of URLs were blocked, including news media, web pages of political opposition, LGBTI, calling for freedom of expression, and circumvention tools such as Tor and Psiphon.

The Ethiopian government continues to misuse the Anti-terrorism Proclamation (ATP) legislation to charge and arrest people critical of government policies or actions. Amnesty International believes that “the acts of censorship, conducted outside a clear legal framework, over several months and affecting dozens of websites and social media platforms as well as the State of Emergency itself – which is so broadly drafted violates Ethiopia’s international legal obligations and permits violations of numerous human rights.”

These violations include the arrest of a number of government critics such as Bekele Gerba, a leading Oromo human rights activist, Eskinder Nega a prominent journalist and a human rights defender. Who was sentenced to 18 years in jail after he wrote articles demanding freedom of expression and an end to torture in Ethiopia.. Yonatan Tesfaye, a prominent opposition figure facing a possible death sentence due to his Facebook post opposing a government plan to extend the capital’s administrative authority to the Oromia region and Merera Gudina, a human rights activist and leader in the Oromo community.

An untold number of Ethiopians are subject to human rights violations as a result of the State of Emergency, the Anti-terrorism Proclamation and other legislation that the government is using to impose order, and, according to the government, restore peace and security.

As 2017 begins however, the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will face very stark truths. In can continue down the current path of increasing repression, and jail anyone who it considers unacceptable, creating a nationwide detention camp, or it can display the leadership the country needs by ending the State of Emergency, allowing an independent commission of inquiry into the protests that have shaken the country for the last two years, repeal the draconian laws it created to silence opposition, and release the scores of prisoners that it will need to talk to and work with to address the governance and human rights challenges the country is facing.

The world is watching and time is running out.

Amnesty International -ETHIOPIA 2015/2016

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Members and leaders of opposition parties as well as protesters were extrajudicially executed. General elections took place in May against a backdrop of restrictions on civil society, the media and the political opposition, including excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the disruption of opposition campaigns, and the harassment of election observers from the opposition. The police and the military conducted mass arrests of protesters, journalists and opposition party members as part of a crackdown on protests in the Oromia region.

Background

The ruling political party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, won all the seats in the Federal and Regional Parliaments in the general election.

The opposition Semayawi Party reported that the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) refused to register over half of its proposed candidates for the House of Peoples’ Representatives: of 400 candidates, only 139 were able to stand for election. The opposition Medrek coalition reported that the NEBE only approved 270 of the 303 candidates it had proposed to register.

Famine due to rainfall shortages during the main harvesting season (June to September) affected more than 8 million people in the north and east.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Police and security officers arrested Omot Agwa Okwoy, Ashinie Astin Titoyk and Jemal Oumar Hojele at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on 15 March, on their way to a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. The workshop was organized by the NGO Bread for All with the support of the NGOs Anywaa Survival Organisation and GRAIN. The police held the three men for 161 days without bail at the Maekelawi detention centre, beyond the four months allowed by the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), under which they were charged on 7 September.

On 12 May, security officers arrested two campaigners and three supporters of the Semayawi Party who were putting up campaign posters in the capital, Addis Ababa. They were released on bail after four days in detention.

On 19 May, Bekele Gerba and other members of the Oromo Federalist Congress were campaigning in Oromia when police and local security officers beat, arrested and detained them for a couple of hours.

Over 500 members of Medrek were arrested at various polling stations in Oromia region on 24 and 25 May. Security officers beat and injured 46 people during the elections; six people sustained gunshot injuries and two were killed.

Extrajudicial executions

Four members and leaders of opposition parties were killed after the election.

Samuel Aweke, founder of the Semayawi Party, was found dead on 15 June in the city of Debre Markos. A few days before his death he had published an article in his party’s newspaper, Negere Ethiopia, criticizing the behaviour of local authorities, police and other security officials. The Semayawi Party claimed that Samuel Aweke had received threats from security officials after the article was published.

On 16 June, Medrek member Taddesse Abreha was accosted on his way home in the Western Tigrai zone by three unknown people who attempted to strangle him. He died shortly after reaching his home.

Medrek member Berhanu Erbu was found dead on 19 June near a river in the Hadiya zone, 24 hours after he was taken from his home by two police officers.

Asrat Haile, election observer on behalf of Medrek in the Adio Kaka unit, Ginbo Woreda district and Kefa zone, died after being repeatedly beaten by police officials on 5 July.

None of these deaths except Samuel Aweke’s was investigated. The Semayawi Party said the trial, conviction and sentencing of Samuel Aweke’s killer were a “sham”, intended to protect the real culprit.

Freedom of expression

In the run-up to the general elections, the government continued to use the ATP to suppress freedom of expression through the continued detention of journalists and protracted trials: it arrested and charged at least 17 journalists under the ATP. Many also fled the country due to intimidation, harassment and politically motivated criminal charges.

Police arrested Habtamu Minale, editor-in-chief of Kedami newspaper and reporter for YeMiliyonoch Dimts newspaper, on 9 July at his house. He was released on 26 July without charge.

The Public Prosecutor dropped the charges against two members of the Zone 9 bloggers’ group. On 16 October, the High Court acquitted five of the Zone 9 bloggers of terrorism charges, after they had spent over 500 days in pre-trial detention.

On 22 October, the High Court convicted and sentenced in his absence Gizaw Taye, Manager of Dadimos Entertainment and Press, to 18 years’ imprisonment for terrorism .

Freedom of assembly

On 27 January, police used excessive force to disperse a peaceful demonstration in Addis Ababa that was organized by the Unity for Democracy and Justice opposition party. Police beat demonstrators with batons, sticks and iron rods on the head, face, hands and legs, injuring more than 20 of them.

On 22 April, the government called a rally on Meskel Square to condemn the killing in Libya of Ethiopian migrants by affiliates of the armed group Islamic State (IS). When some demonstrators shouted slogans during the rally, police used excessive force, including tear gas and beatings, to disperse the crowd, which escalated the situation to clashes between protesters and police. A journalist reported that 48 people had been injured and admitted to hospital, and that many others sustained minor injuries. Hundreds were reported to have been arrested. Woyneshet Molla, Daniel Tesfaye, Ermias Tsegaye and Betelehem Akalework were arrested on 22 April and charged with inciting violence during the rally. They were convicted and sentenced to two months in prison, and were kept in custody for more than 10 days after the completion of their prison term, although courts had ordered their release. The police released them on bail on 2 July.