For months, Eskinder Nega’s supporters in Washington, New York and around the world have been pleading for his freedom. In petitions, blogs and speeches, they have hailed the prominent Ethiopian journalist, detained last fall on terrorism charges, as a courageous champion of democratic rights in a country that is systematically snuffing them out.
But the government of Ethiopia — a major recipient of American aid and an important U.S. military ally in a volatile region of Africa — chose to ignore the appeals. In late June, it convicted Nega, 44, of crimes against the state, which included “attempting to incite violence and overthrow the constitutional order.” On July 13, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
“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.
Nega chronicled every new injustice, and he was jailed seven times on charges that included anti-government agitation. In 2005, he and his wife and business partner, Serkalem Fasil, were detained for 18 months. Fasil was pregnant, and their son Nafteko was born in prison. After the couple’s release, officials refused to renew their newspaper licenses, so Nega turned to blogging.
His critiques grew sharper as protests erupted across the Arab world in the spring of 2010.
“He was absolutely fearless, but he paid a heavy price,” said Mohammed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. He cited several blogs that upset the Meles regime: for instance, one that drew parallels between unrest in Ethiopia and protests in Egypt and Yemen, and another that questioned the detention of a dissident actor in his 70s. As other journalists fled, Nega defended them in his blogs, which were blocked at home but read by a widening audience abroad.
In September, he was arrested again, this time on much more serious terrorism charges. Prosecutors alleged that he and others were conspiring with armed opponents, including rebels from neighboring Eritrea and an opposition group called Ginbot 7. Keita described their court hearing as a “show trial with no credibility” and said the judge accused Nega of trying to spark an Arab Spring-style uprising.
Officials at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington could not be reached last week for comment.
As Nega languished in prison, his blogs fell silent, but his plight gained international attention. More than 30 international rights groups circulated petitions for his release and lobbied Congress for help. Sympathetic features and indignant editorials appeared in respected journals and magazines. In May, the PEN America organization awarded Nega its prestigious press freedom prize. Fasil, an elegant and poised woman, caused a sensation when she appeared at the New York awards ceremony to represent her husband.
Although Nega found a few champions on Capitol Hill, notably Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), his high-profile case remains a source of tension and embarrassment to the Obama administration. The Meles government, despite its increasingly harsh treatment of domestic opponents, is a rare, reliable U.S. ally in a chaotic and impoverished region beset by ethnic strife and threatened by radical Islamic militancy.
The regime in Addis Ababa has provided soldiers for international peacekeeping efforts. It recently agreed to host a base for unmanned U.S. drones. Ethiopia has received more than $2 billion in U.S. aid since 2010 and major project investment from the World Bank and other international agencies, in part because of its promising economic policies and in part to stave off famine.
Last month, the State Department issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the convictions and sentences of Nega and his co-defendants, including an exiled opposition leader who was condemned to life in prison. The statement called on the Meles government to “stop stifling freedom of expression” and to release those imprisoned for exercising their rights.
There was no public suggestion, however, of economic sanctions or other tangible form of disapproval.
“It’s very frustrating,” Kelly said. “The big concern in Washington now is about security and food aid. These are legitimate concerns, but it creates an environment that puts human rights on the back burner.
“Civil society is being decimated in Ethiopia, but the administration is turning a blind eye.”
The young Ethiopian emigres gathered Thursday said they closely followed events in their homeland — most recently, rampant rumors of Meles’s ill health — on Facebook and Twitter, but they seemed reluctant to be publicly associated with any opposition groups and uncertain how to connect with the great majority of people in Ethiopia who have no Internet access.
“In a way, it is just whispering from a distance,” said one participant.
Nega’s family members in the Washington area also have kept a low profile, but in interviews last week they expressed deep anguish for him and their homeland.
Makdela Bekele, 43, a cousin, is a longtime U.S. resident who works for a software company in Maryland. She wept repeatedly as she spoke of their lifelong friendship and the weekly phone conversations they enjoyed until last September, when Nega vanished into prison.
“We had a nice talk, and he seemed to be in good spirits. Then the next day my brother called to tell me he had been arrested,” Bekele said, apologizing as she tried to blot tears from her mascara.
“Once I wanted to go back home to live, but now I have changed my mind. I’m not brave like Eskinder,” she said, bursting into tears again. “I am not brave enough to sacrifice my life like he has.”