On December 18, 16 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) wrote an open letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn calling for the immediate release of the independent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who was condemned in July to 18 years in prison under the country's tough 2009 anti-terrorism legislation.
Since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away in August, the trickle of news has slowed and the fate of political prisoners and jailed journalists had largely vanished from the European media's radar screen. In Brussels however, European Union officials and MEPs have been closely following developments there. Ethiopia has long been considered by European development agencies as a good pupil in anti-poverty efforts and it is seen as a strategic ally in a region torn by conflicts. Preserving Ethiopia's stability is a priority for Brussels, which wants at the same time to respect as much as possible the EU's official human rights doctrine.
No one in the EU beltway is unaware of the authoritarian nature of the Ethiopian government or of the requirements of the Cotonou agreement that bases EU-Ethiopia relations on respect for democracy and human rights. But EU policy-makers and legislators disagree on how to address the new Ethiopian government.
EU diplomats tend to favor a policy of positive engagement with Addis Ababa, hoping that quiet diplomacy and economic assistance will move the regime toward liberalization. Meanwhile leading members of the European Parliament, an institution that has made human rights a core principle of its foreign policy initiatives, say a tougher and more principled approach is needed. They maintain that the opening up of the political space and the rescinding of repressive laws are essential to prevent the country from falling into political unrest. "The use of vague anti-terror legislation to silence legitimate expression threatens to seriously undermine the credibility of efforts to address real security threats to the region," the 16 MEPs wrote.
The letter in favor of Eskinder's release (which was initiated by Freedom Now, a Washington-based legal organization that serves as international pro bono counsel to Eskinder), shows that the campaign for press freedom in Ethiopia rallies a representative spectrum of the European Parliament. Although they are only 16 out of 754 deputies, the signatories belong to the largest political groups--the European People's Party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and the European Conservatives and Reformists--which represent two-thirds of the Parliament.
In July, after learning of Eskinder's sentence, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton expressed her concern at the severity of the sentence and her fear that the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation could affect freedom of expression. She also asked the EU delegation in Addis Ababa to monitor trials under the law.
The ball is now in the court of the EU officials and national governments that take the executive decisions to determine the EU's foreign policy towards Ethiopia.
While EU politicians debate, Eskinder remains in prison--today is his 462nd day behind bars. He appeared in court today regarding his appeal before the Supreme Court. The verdict was adjourned to January 18, 2013.