Freedom comes at a price in Ethiopia - and the UK

The struggle for human rights is a long one, fraught with set-backs and challenges, so it’s always nice to get a bit of good news once in a while.

Yesterday Ethiopia released a number of bloggers and journalists imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech. Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret, bloggers from the Zone 9 collective, and three journalists being tried alongside them for terrorism offences – Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Waldeyes and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis – were released from jail after all charges against them were dropped. They had been in detention for over a year. Journalist Reeyot Alemu, who’d spent four years in detention for terrorism offences, was also released.

The releases come a week ahead of President Obama’s official visit to the country, and perhaps offers some hope that the newly re-elected Ethiopian government (which won an unbelievable 100% of the vote in last month’s general elections, after a widespread crackdown on free speech and assembly) is alert to its image overseas – and potentially able to be influenced by foreign governments over human rights concerns.

Ethiopia’s government has a less than illustrious record when it comes to human rights. Repression of dissent, laws restricting civil society, torture in custody, excessive use of force, are just some of the concerns raised by Amnesty in recent years.

Other journalists and bloggers including Eskinder Nega and Wubishet Taye remain in prison after politically-motivated convictions on terrorism charges. In Ethiopia, terrorism charges are used liberally! The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is frequently used to silence dissenting voices. Since its introduction in 2009, the law has been used to prosecute members of opposition political parties, independent journalists and peaceful protesters more than any other groups, many of whom still languish in jail.

One of those is Andargachew (Andy) Tsige, a British national, illegally renditioned to Ethiopia and now on death row for allegedly being involved in an attempted coup. Andy is being denied regular consular access and Amnesty has serious concerns that he may be being tortured. The Foreign Secretary recently issued a statement expressing the UK government’s concerns for Andy. This is a positive development - our government has in the past been a little too reluctant to criticise Ethiopia's human rights abuses - but this seems to be slowly changing.

The UK government recently raised questions around the legitimacy of the recent elections and withdrew funding for aid projects with reported ethical concerns. These are welcome developments, and we at Amnesty will be continuing to press the UK government to raise human rights concerns with the Ethiopian authorities.

However, the UK government must understand that its actions at home risk undermining its credibility and effectiveness when raising such concerns with other states.

Last week’s revelation that the UK government spied on Amnesty is likely to have serious reverberations when it comes to lobbying other states on human rights. If we take the case of Ethiopia and its use of laws and spyware technology to restrict civil society (documented in this excellent Human Rights Watch report), we can see where these conversations may go. The Ethiopians are going to reply, "Don’t tell us what to do: you spy on human rights organisations".

This leaves the UK government in a difficult position and is another reason it needs to clear up this sorry surveillance mess and instigate a proper independent judge-led inquiry into the monitoring of human rights organisations by UK security services. We have written to the Prime Minister to request a meeting to discuss such an inquiry and we await his response.

In the meantime, the UK government needs to be looking in its own backyard and thinking about other plans and policies that may reverberate in its foreign policy. I’m not going to mention scrapping the Human Rights Act or the planned Investigatory Powers Bill as I wouldn’t want to put ideas into the minds of others – oops!

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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