“We will continue to push for Eskinder’s unconditional release. He is one of our key, priority cases,” Ilona Kelly, a representative of Amnesty International, promised a gathering of Ethiopian exiles in the District on Thursday. She called Nega’s plight a symptom of the widening crackdown by Ethiopian authorities in which “almost any act of dissent or criticism can be interpreted as terrorism.”
Nega, who graduated from American University and then returned home in the 1990s to establish several independent newspapers, was one of 20 journalists and opposition figures condemned on similar charges last month. But almost all the others were already safe in exile, having fled over the past several years as pressure on dissidents mounted. Nega, who is legally a U.S. permanent resident, decided to stay and fight.
At the somber gathering in a U Street bar Thursday night, there was a feeling of uneasiness and guilt among Nega’s compatriots and colleagues. Most work at professional jobs, attend graduate school or have found other niches in the region’s large and thriving Ethiopian community of about 200,000, which includes half a dozen members of Nega’s extended family.
One journalist in the room, Abiye Teklemariam, fled his homeland in 2009, but he was sentenced in absentia last month to eight years in prison.
“Terrorism is a powerful word, and the government is using it to accuse people with no reason,” said Teklemariam, 34, who is studying for a doctorate at Oxford University. “Eskinder used to criticize us for leaving. He is a calm and patient person, but he is also willing to take risks that most people are not. He is like an American in his passion for freedom of expression.”
Nega’s fortunes as a journalist have followed the tortuous path of a country that emerged from decades of dictatorial communist rule in 1991, ushering in a period of political hope and change. The fragile new democracy was rent by ethnic divisions and breakaway militias, buffeted by war and chaos in next-door Somalia, and threatened by the permanent specter of famine.
The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, although popular with Western donors and praised for its innovative plans for economic development, became increasingly intolerant of dissent. According to international rights groups, the crackdown began in earnest in 2005, when bitterly contested elections led to mass protests and police shootings.