An Ethiopian court on Thursday found three journalists, a politician and a politician's assistant guilty of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, in a case that drew rebukes from rights groups who fear the country's anti-terrorism law is being used to suppress dissent.
The five were charged under Ethiopia's controversial anti-terrorism laws. Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal has said they were involved in planning attacks on infrastructure, telecommunications and power lines.
Alemu Gobebo, a private lawyer and a father of one of the defendants, called the case politically motivated. The five will be sentenced Jan. 26. They could face the death penalty.
Among the three journalist convicted were Reeyot Alemu, a columnist for the independent weekly Fetah and a former opposition member; Elias Kifle, editor-in-chief of a U.S.-based opposition website, who was tried in absentia; and Wubshet Taye, deputy editor-in-chief of the recently closed-down weekly newspaper Awramba Times.
International rights groups have been calling for the release of the journalists. Ethiopia recently found two Swedish reporters guilty of supporting terrorism and sentenced them to 11 years in prison.
Ethiopia has arrested close to 200 people, among them journalists and opposition politicians and members, under last year's anti-terrorism proclamation.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world.
Amnesty International said it does not believe there is any evidence that the five were guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. Claire Beston, the group's Ethiopia researcher, called the five "prisoners of conscience." She said a significant amount of the prosecution's evidence relied on the defendants' reporting of and alleged involvement in calls for peaceful protest against the government.
Human Rights Watch said the anti-terrorism law violates free expression and due process rights.
"The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent," said Leslie Lefkow, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt."