Tesfaye, arrested in 2015 over social media posts, faces up to 20 years in jail under 2009 anti-terrorism law.
Rights group Amnesty International has criticised the decision of an Ethiopian court to charge an ex-opposition member with encouraging terrorism. Yonatan Tesfaye, former spokesman for the opposition Blue Party, was arrested in December 2015 after posting comments on social media in which he criticised the government.
Tesfaye claimed authorities had used force to quell anti-government protests that rocked Oromiaregion in 2015 and 2016.
In one of his posts, he claimed authorities had used “force against the people instead of using peaceful discussion”, according to AFP.
Tesfaye’s defence team argued he was excercising his right of freedom of expression. However, judge Belayhun Awol ruled on Tuesday (16 May) the comments “exceeded freedom of expression” and amounted to encouraging terrorism.
Tesfaye has pleaded non guilty and plans to appeal the verdict. He will be sentenced on 25 May.
He faces between 10 and 20 years in prison under the country’s anti-terrorism law. The legislation, implemented in 2009, was criticised by rights groups, which claimed it was used to silence critics and journalists, something the government denies.
“This is not a crime, yet he now faces up to 20 years in jail under this draconian and deeply-flawed law,” Michelle Kagari, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said in a statement.
Kagari deemed the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” and added: “This ruling is a shameful affront to people’s right to express themselves and further entrenches repression in Ethiopia,” she said.
Demonstrations broke out in Oromia in November 2015 and later spread to the Amhara region, northwestern Ethiopia, growing into what has been considered the biggest anti-government unrest in Ethiopia’s recent history and prompting the country to declare a state of emergency – still in place today – that put an end to the protests.
People initially protested over government plans to expand the territory of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, with farmers fearing that increasing the size of the city would lead to forced evictions and loss of farming land.
The government later scrapped the plans, but protests continued. Many Oromo people argued for a greater inclusion in the political process, saying they had been marginalised. Protesters also called for the release of political prisoners.
Oromo protesters further claimed the government is dominated by the Tigray minority, who make up 6.2% of the total population. The country is ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four political parties that includes the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization.
In 2016, in a substantial cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn appointed 21 new cabinet ministers, giving prominent ministerial roles to two members of the Oromo ethnic group.
Since November 2015, the unrest in Ethiopia has resulted in the deaths of 669 people, including 63 policemen, according to a report released by Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission in April.
Rights groups have accused security forces of killing hundreds of people, opening fire on unarmed protesters and arbitrarily arresting protesters, journalists and human rights defenders during the demonstrations.
While the country’s Human Rights Commission recommended prosecution of some police officers, it maintained that the overall response by security forces was adequate.