During the more than a year that myself and Anthony McIntyre have been fighting the ill-advised attempts by the PSNI and the Obama Justice Department to confiscate the Belfast oral history archive at Boston College, we have been lucky to have secured the support of many good people from all walks of life who have been outraged and disturbed by this effort to censor and silence truth and history-telling.
As a journalist, I have been particularly gratified at the support shown by fellow members of the media, many of whom have been generous with their time and advice. At times like this solidarity is really a great thing.
Now, it is my time to give a little bit back and ask people who read this column to give their support to a journalist whose fate makes our predicament seem like an afternoon picnic by a beautiful lakeside.
In mid-July the Ethiopian government sentenced journalist Eskinder Nega to 18 years in jail, ostensibly for violating the country’s anti-terrorism laws but really for criticising arrests made under the same laws. In particular Nega, who has been involved in the local media since 1993 when he founded his first newspaper, criticised the arrest of Debebe Eshetu, one of Ethiopia’s best known actors who had been the face of political opposition during the 2005 election campaign and had questioned the validity of the election results.
Following his criticism of the election, riots flared and 200 people were killed. Debebe was convicted of treason and sentenced to life but was later pardoned. His recent arrest followed the passage of stringent anti-terrorism laws which government critics, such as Eskinder Nega say the government is using as a waepon to silence any and all political opposition.
Eskinder Naga’s arrest and conviction have outraged human rights groups and media organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists have thrown their weight behind efforts to get him freed while Pen America awarded him its annual ‘Freedom to Write’ prize in May. Amnesty International made him a prisoner of conscience and said in a statement: “The imprisonment…is emblematic of the Ethiopian government’s determination to gag any dissenting voice in the country….(It is) treating calls for peaceful protest as a terrorist act and is outlawing the legitimate activity of journalists and opposition members.”
Here’s a video of that Pen ceremony in New York last May.
This just the sort of case, you might imagine, that would allow the Obama White House to flourish its human rights credentials. After all here is a journalist who also happens to be a legal resident of the US, the next stage to being an actual citizen, who has been jailed on trumped up charges under a widely criticised law for reasons that have nothing to do with combatting terrorism and everything to do with stifling normal political dissent.
Well, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton did issue a strongly worded condemnation of Eskinder Nega’s jailing, using words that I must say brought a cynical smile to my lips: “The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.”
But aside from that there has been only silence from the Obama administration. Now maybe I am too old and sardonic these days to see the good in people, and in this case I will try to suspend judgement for a while yet. As we say in Ireland ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’. But maybe something is going on behind the scenes. We shall see.
But I immediately started researching Ethiopia’s relations with the United States and surprise, surprise discovered reasons not just to think that Hillary’s condemnation is probably so much hot air but that if she or her minions make any more complaints to the Ethiopian regime about breaching human rights the government in Addis Ababa would have every right to laugh them out of the room.
It turns out that the government which Hillary is now scolding for its disregard for “freedom of expression and freedom of the media” turns out to have been Washington’s staunchest and most reliable allies in the never-ending Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) in the Horn of Africa and in such capacity has assisted the US to render and torture hundreds if not thousands of people.
The story begins in 2007 in the dying months of the Bush White House when the US backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to unseat the Islamic Courts Union government that according to reports had brought a certain degree of order to a country that had been in turmoil for more than a decade.
Somalis in their thousands began fleeing the country but many were arrested in nearby Kenya or Ethiopia and rendered to secret CIA prisons in Ethiopia where many were interrogated under torture as suspect supporters of Al Qaeda or other jihadist groups. The Associated Press reported the story back in April 2007.
Direct US involvement in torture ended when Obama was elected and took office in January 2009 but according to American reporter Jeremy Scahill, the focus switched to Mogadishu, capital of the new US-friendly Somalian government where at a secret CIA jail near the international airport jihadist suspects rendered by Ethiopia and Kenya were interrogated, and possibly tortured by Somali agents in the pay of the US. It was a classic Obama operation; he could honestly say America no longer tortured people. It just paid others to do the dirty work.
The important part of this story is that the government which has jailed Eskinder Nega helped run torture jails for the CIA and now delivers rendered captives for torture by Somalis whose checks are cut by the US government. So when Hillary raises her deep concerns about the jailing of Eskinder Nega and its meaning for human rights in his country, the response of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Senawi would not be difficult to predict.
All of which makes Eskinder Nega’s plight even more parlous and deserving of concern. My own fear is that with the presidential election looming in November and Obama intent on playing the role of ‘I’m the guy who got Osama’, Eskinder Nega is likely to fester away in jail so that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave can get to enjoy a second term.
Which makes it all the more important that people register their support and concern for Eskinder Nega. You can do so by putting your name to this petition.
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