On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger, was arrested by the Ethiopian authorities shortly after publishing an online column calling for an end to torture in Ethiopian prisons, a halt to the imprisonment of dissidents, and respect for freedom of expression. The charges against him are punishable by death, and carry a minimum sentence of fifteen years in prison,1 where both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn that he is at risk of torture.
Previous to his current arrest, Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, both newspaper publishers, were charged with treason following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections, along with dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders, and spent seventeen months in jail. While in custody, Serkalem gave birth to their first child. Even after they were acquitted by Ethiopia’s Federal High Court, Eskinder and Serkalem were blocked from reopening their newspapers and the government continued to pursue civil charges against them.2
Eskinder also was detained earlier this year, after he published an online column asking members of the security services not to shoot unarmed demonstrators—as they did in 2005—in the event that the “Arab Spring” should spread to Ethiopia.3
The letter, published in the elite-focused, New York Review of Books, calls on the Obama administration to “to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent…and ensure that our more than $600 million in aid to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.”
This is an important test for the human rights chops of the Obama administration. Ethiopia is a very important ally in American counter-terrorism efforts in the region. That was the case in the Bush era, but has become even evident in the first three years of the Obama administration. In October, the Washington Post broke the story that the USA had refurbished an airfield in southern Ethiopia from which it launches drone strikes against targets in the Horn of Africa.
All the while, the government of Meles Zenawi is as autocratic as its ever. In parliamentary elections in 2010, his party miraculously won 96% of the vote. The government is even so brazen as to convict two Swedish journalists under anti-terrorism laws for reporting from the restive Ogaden region. That’s the behavior of a government that does not believe it will be taken to task for human rights abuses–even though the country is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
The supremacy of counter-terrorism objectives in the Horn of Africa over human rights or democratization resulted in a multitude of disasters during the Bush years. It would seem that the Obama administration has done little to change that fundamental focus on counter-terrorism uber-alles.