Vigil in DC honors Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega

This is Eskinder’s ninth imprisonment in 21 years while reporting the news in Ethiopia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most recent charges against him include involvement in “terrorism”–a grave charge that prosecutors backed with a YouTube video of a public meeting where he had discussed the implications of the Arab Spring in Ethiopia. The government charged him under the country’s anti-terrorism law–the same legislation he had criticized in a column five days before his arrest. In the column, Eskinder had expressed his indignation at the imprisonment of 73-year-old actor Debebe Eshetu on terrorism charges and noted that dozens of political dissidents and a handful of independent journalists jailed with him did not fit the profile of terrorists.

There
was much public condemnation, both from Washington and abroad,
after Eskinder was convicted of involvement
in terrorism in July and sentenced to 18 years in
prison
.
Prominent voices increasingly questioned whether the
U.S. privileged its strategic
security relationship with Ethiopia at the expense
of human rights
.

We
at Amnesty International’s Young Professionals for Human Rights in Ethiopia
decided that this event, unlike previous vigils and protests, would occur
neither in front of the symbols of the U.S. government nor around the Ethiopian
Embassy in D.C., but instead on U Street, where hundreds of Ethiopians, and Americans
of Ethiopian origin, sprawl at any given time. Our motto: Take the event to the
people!

Eskinder’s
aunt, who lives in the D.C. area, surprised us by appearing at the vigil, where
she expressed her desire to see him out of prison. Maran Turner, executive
director of Freedom Now, an organization serving as Eskinder’s international
pro bono legal counsel, spoke on the case that her organization had filed with
the United Nations Human Right Council. We also thanked Jason McLure, a former
Bloomberg News correspondent in Ethiopia and the founder of FreeEskinderNega.com, for his
campaign that unreservedly calls for the blogger’s release from jail.

Eskinder’s
case is symbolic of a wider crackdown on dissent that began in Ethiopia in the
months following the Arab Spring, perhaps to pre-empt the possibility of
organized anti-government protests like those in Egypt. Today, six journalists and dozens of
political dissidents remain in prison in the country, most of them on terrorism
and anti-state charges. Yet the most egregious weapon used by the Ethiopian
government against critics has been the 2009 anti-terrorism law.

The
terrorism law contains provisions so vaguely worded that they
criminalize what are natural rights unequivocally enshrined in the constitution
of Ethiopia. Some of the attendants at the vigil suggested that maybe our
efforts would be better directed toward a complete repeal or partial amendment
of the law so that it could be used only to prosecute genuine acts of
terrorism. But we all agreed that Eskinder and other jailed political prisoners
give a human face to the total injustice and unfairness of the law.

Mahlet
Solomon, one of the organizers, told the group, “Dissent
is not terrorism, and Eskinder’s case is the true face of the violation of freedom
of expression in Ethiopia. Remembering Eskinder is remembering the afflictions
of all those who have criticized these violations and were persecuted.”

This
was the second event that we have organized around Eskinder and the issue of
free speech. At the first event, in August, we
discussed freedom of expression in the age of the Internet and social media. We
plan to organize more events, sensitize more people to the cause, and campaign
for free speech. Some dare us to “fight like man,” an open invitation to
violent confrontation of the oppressive regime, but we at the group say, “We
fight like a civilized man and woman with our pens and notebook, with our
keyboards and with our arts.”

The
following words, written by Eskinder Nega and read aloud at the event by Jason
McLure, never fail to remind us of the imprisoned blogger’s unwavering
optimism.

Freedom
is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom
discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably, freedom will
overwhelm Ethiopia.