(New York) - The Ethiopian government should stop using a restrictive and vague counterterrorism law to repress free speech and due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. An Ethiopian court ruled the week of July 17, 2011, that under this law, two Ethiopian journalists - already held for over a month without being charged or given access to counsel - will remain imprisoned for another 28 days.
Woubshet Taye of the Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu of Feteh newspaper have been detained without charge since June 19 and 21 respectively. On June 29, the government publicly accused them, along with two members of an opposition party, the Ethiopian National Democratic party, and five people it did not identify, of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
"The Ethiopian government should not rely on an overly broad anti-terrorism law to silence independent reporting in Ethiopia," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "It should either bring credible charges against the two journalists or quickly release them."
The journalists are being held at the infamous Federal Police Crime Investigation Department, known as Maekelawi prison, in Addis Ababa, where torture is frequent. Their detention without access to legal counsel heightens concerns about their treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
The restrictive Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, adopted in 2009, makes the publication of statements "likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts" punishable by imprisonment for 10 to 20 years. The overly broad description leaves journalists in jeopardy of being accused of encouraging terrorism.
The law also violates due process rights guaranteed under Ethiopian law and international law. Human Rights Watch has called previously for its amendment in line with those standards.
The Ethiopian constitution requires the government to bring a person before a court within 48 hours of being detained and to inform that person of the charges against him or her. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Ethiopia ratified in 1993, provides that anyone arrested for a criminal offense shall be brought before a judicial authority and promptly charged.
However, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation permits the police to request additional investigation periods of 28 days each from a court before filing charges, for up to a maximum of four months. While the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation does not explicitly deny access to legal counsel, the authorities have frequently denied this right to people held under its provisions.
Human Rights Watch is aware of at least 11 people in pretrial detention under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and 14 people who were charged in June 2011 under this law with belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a banned rebel armed group.
"Every detainee in Ethiopia should be granted immediate access to counsel and to their families," Peligal said. "Accusations under the terrorism law should never mean the denial of basic human rights."