A judge in Ethiopia’s capital on Tuesday found a former opposition spokesman guilty of encouraging terrorism with a series of anti-government Facebook posts.
Yonatan Tesfaye was arrested in December 2015 after writing on the social media platform that the government had used “force against the people instead of using peaceful discussion with the public.”
While Yonatan’s lawyer and defence witnesses argued the former spokesman of the opposition Blue Party was exercising his right to free speech, judge Belayhun Awol ruled the comments “exceeded freedom of expression” and amounted to encouraging terrorism.
“I think the government’s intent and what it seeks is this: to restrict others from speaking freely,” Yonatan’s lawyer Shebru Belete Birru told AFP after the verdict.
The guilty verdict for “encouragement of terrorism” means Yonatan faces a possible sentence of between 10 and 20 years under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, which have been criticised by rights groups and Ethiopia’s allies, such as the United States, for being used to stifle dissent.
Yonatan’s comments came shortly after protesters belonging to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, took to the streets in towns outside the capital Addis Ababa, claiming a plan to expand the city’s boundaries into their region amounted to a land-grab.
The protests led Ethiopia’s government to declare a state of emergency last October, which was extended for another four months in March.
Yonatan was originally charged with being a member of the banned separatist Oromo Liberation Front, but prosecutors changed the charges against him last year.
Shebru said he plans to appeal the verdict.
Amnesty: Terrorism Verdict for Facebook Posts a Shameful Affront to Freedom of Expression
BY AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
In response to news that former Ethiopian opposition spokesman Yonatan Tesfaye has been found guilty of “encouragement of terrorism” in connection with his posts on Facebook, Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said:
“Today’s verdict is a miscarriage of justice. It is yet another example of how the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is used to target and destroy people who criticize the government. All Yonatan did was express himself online. This is not a crime, yet he now faces up to 20 years in jail under this draconian and deeply-flawed law.
“This ruling is a shameful affront to people’s right to express themselves and further entrenches repression in Ethiopia.”
Yonatan, a former senior official in the opposition Semayawi (Blue) Party, was arbitrarily arrested in December 2015 for comments he posted on Facebook, in which he criticized the government’s response to protests in the Oromia region.
He will be sentenced on 25 May.