Ethiopia counterterrorism law represses free speech: HRW

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[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] called on the Ethiopian government Monday to stop using a “restrictive and vague” counterterrorism law [press release] to repress free speech. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 [text; JURIST report] provides for penalties of 10 to 20 years in prison for publishing statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts.” In July, an Ethiopian court used the law to justify the prolonged detention, without charge, of two journalists accused of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Deputy Africa Director of HRW Rona Peligal urged the Ethiopian government to reject the law:

The Ethiopian government should not rely on an overly broad anti-terrorism law to silence independent reporting in Ethiopia. It should either bring credible charges against the two journalists or quickly release them. Every detainee in Ethiopia should be granted immediate access to counsel and to their families. Accusations under the terrorism law should never mean the denial of basic human rights.

Though Ethiopia’s Constitution [text] requires that a detainee have the opportunity to appear in court within 48 hours of detention, the Act extends that time limit to four 28-day periods, or up to four months. HRW also reported that torture is frequent at Ethiopian detention facilities and arrestees are often held without access to legal counsel, thereby intensifying the effects of the law.

Human rights in Ethiopia have been intensely scrutinized by the international community. HRW published a report [text] shortly after Ethiopia enacted the law, expressing concern that the law could “punish political speech and peaceful protest as terrorist acts and encourage unfair trials.” The Ethiopian National Priorities Consultative Process [advocacy website] met in July 2009 to agree on a resolution [text, PDF] that expresses concern over civil rights. The group was troubled by proclamations being passed by the ruling regime, calling anti-terrorism laws and others “draconian” and repressive. In January of that same year, the Ethiopian Parliament adopted legislation [JURIST report] to prevent certain foreign charities from being involved in areas that the government believes are internal affairs including human rights and equality. In June 2008, HRW released a report attacking Ethiopian human rights practices in the Ogaden region [JURIST report]. The US House of Representatives passed the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 [JURIST op-ed], aimed in part at encouraging the improvement of the human rights situation in Ethiopia, but the bill never became law. In July 2007, HRW accused Ethiopian troops of violating international humanitarian law [JURIST report] by burning homes and forcibly relocating civilians in Ogaden.

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