By Peter Heinlein, VOA – A prominent Ethiopian attorney and a Voice of America journalist face stiff prison terms in a case linked to an exiled opposition leader accused of plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. The accused are free on bail, pending trial.
The Chairman of Ethiopia’s independent Human Rights Council and former Supreme Court justice Abebe Worke is scheduled to appear for pre-trial hearings on Wednesday in an Addis Ababa court along with VOA Amharic service reporter Meleskachew Ameha. The two men are charged with trying to sell illegal radio broadcasting equipment that was imported without paying taxes.
Defense attorney Atnafu Bogale says the pair face long prison terms, if convicted.
“One charge carries a sentence of seven to 15 years and the other charge carries a sentence of three to five years,” said Atnafu Bogale. “Both charges are serious, rigorous imprisonment.”
The suspected contraband was seized by customs agents at the Addis Broadcasting Company, ABC – a firm founded by a shareholders group that includes Meleskachew, Abebe and opposition leader Berhanu Nega.
The company obtained studio equipment in 2002 through a grant from the Norwegian government intended to foster independent media in Ethiopia. But subsequently, the firm was unable to obtain a broadcasting license.
Attorneys says ABC’s link to Berhanu Nega is a complicating factor in the case. He was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, but was later jailed in connection with post election violence. After being freed in 2007, he went to the United States, where he heads Ginbot Seven, an opposition group committed to ousting the Ethiopian government.
Police recently arrested 32 suspected Ginbot Seven members and accused them of hatching a plot to assassinate public officials.
Fourteen others were charged in absentia, including Berhanu Nega. Berhanu denies the charges.
Law professor and co-founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council Mesfin Woldemariam says Berhanu’s involvement in ABC makes it a target.
“They are definitely going at Berhanu Nega with ABC,” said Mesfin Woldemariam. “[If] they wanted Berhanu Nega, they don’t have to arrest so many individuals who have shares. So it is irrational, perhaps motivated by fear.”
The arrest of Meleskachew Ameha comes at a time of tense relations between the government and the Voice of America, which broadcasts in four of Ethiopia’s main languages. The government temporarily suspended Meleskachew’s reporting license earlier this year to underscore its displeasure with VOA’s news coverage.
Ethiopia’s Communications Minister, Bereket Simon, told journalists it is no secret that the government has qualms about VOA’s reporting. But he denied that the ABC case is aimed at silencing reporter Meleskachew.
“Absolutely not,” said Bereket Simon. “The arrest of Meleskachew is related only to tax evasion and doing illicit activities in terms of bringing in radio equipment without prior knowledge of the government. So it has nothing to do with content.”
In a related development, the government last week ordered a local FM radio station in Addis Ababa to immediately stop all rebroadcasts of VOA programs. The popular Sheger FM station had been broadcasting several hours daily of mostly music programming in English, including brief international news bulletins.