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A Canadian student humanitarian activist from Ottawa was detained in Ethiopia and is now facing political repression charges. Tsegaye Kebede was arrested by the Ethiopian government last November and is now facing 200 years in prison. More than 400 people are facing similar charges. The charges include: espionage, sedition, endangering national security, land rights violations, allegedly collaborating with terrorist organizations, among other charges.
Tsegaye and his friend, Bara Ayele, were running a locally owned medical clinic, where an Eritrean refugee complained about government-owned hospitals and other forms of abuse he suffered at the hands of the Ethiopian government. He was returned to his country where he was reportedly tortured, some losing the use of their legs. Tsegaye and his friend then attempted to take a video exposing the government’s tortures, but were seized by police and taken into custody.
Global organizations have repeatedly noted the rampant political oppression, violence, and intolerance of religious minorities in Ethiopia. A large part of the population remains in government-controlled areas, especially in the north of the country. Christians constitute a tiny fraction of the population.
More importantly, the Ethiopian government also engages in its own rampant political repression. While the government denies persecution, a 2016 Human Rights Watch report ranked Ethiopia “on the very worst end of a list of countries” for the scale and severity of abuses. Discrimination of religious minorities such as religious Muslims, atheists, and agnostics is rampant. The government also discriminates against the East African nation’s large international diaspora. According to the report, Ethiopia’s constitution has been “systematically ignored.”
The Ethiopian government is accused of implementing a “systematic and relentless crackdown on independent voices” that has “hurt many civil society organizations and independent media, particularly in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR).” The government’s “malicious targeting” of human rights defenders and journalists has required the constant work of the Carter Center and the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Canada’s Special Representative for Africa’s Great Lakes Region, Dr. Christopher Stalsick, voiced concern about the trial of Tsegaye. Stalsick has been working with others, including experts from Canada and the United States to work with the Ethiopian government to help alleviate the humanitarian and political abuses.
There has been a fairly similar situation with the political persecution of foreign and indigenous journalists in Zimbabwe in recent years. Several journalists have been killed while working for international media outlets. In September 2017, Canadian journalist Nathaniel Rich, who was jailed for a year on drug-related charges, died under suspicious circumstances. He was participating in a documentary being filmed by Zimbabwean independent radio station Afro24.
In response to the recent launch of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Trump administration issued a Special Presidential Statement in early February calling for an end to the mass “political persecution of critics, human rights defenders, and independent groups.” “Human rights abuses and persecution” has been a part of the U.S. foreign policy approach to the region for years. The U.S. did also take a strong position against Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot when he visited in 2000.
Sadly, Tsegaye is more than just an activist, he is a family man and a medical doctor who currently faces years in prison. Canada and the Canadian government are both calling for his release and should be louder in their calls for this human rights violation to stop.
Joe Capobianco (JCP) is the Senior Vice President of Foreign Policy at Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that advocates for international freedom.