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An imprisoned Ethiopian journalist and blogger who could face the death penalty for advocating peaceful protests in his Horn of Africa homeland was honored Tuesday with PEN America's "Freedom to Write" award.
Eskinder Nega was arrested in 2011 under Ethiopia's sweeping anti-terrorism laws, which PEN says criminalize any reporting deemed to "encourage" or "provide moral support" to groups and causes the government deems "terrorists."
Nega is still in jail after a judge in Addis Ababa found him guilty Jan. 23 on terror charges. He could face the death penalty at sentencing.
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 over the past decade.
Nega was honored at PEN/America's annual gala dinner Tuesday at the American Museum of Natural History, with some 500 PEN members and supporters in attendance.
PEN/America granted him the year's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Forty-six women and men have received the award since 1987; 33 of the 37 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
Accepting the award was his wife, Serkalem Fasil, a free expression advocate in her own right, who served 17 months in prison for treason starting in 2005 and gave birth to their child behind bars. She won the International Women's Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award in 2007.
"The Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega is that bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk," said Peter Godwin, president of PEN American Center. "Yet he did so nonetheless. And indeed he fell victim to exactly the measures he was highlighting, Ethiopia's draconian `anti terrorism' laws that criminalize critical commentary."
Nega has been publishing articles critical of the government since 1993, when he opened his first newspaper, Ethiopis, which was soon shut down by authorities.
He was the general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw, and Menelik, all of which are now banned in Ethiopia.
Nega has also been a columnist for the monthly magazine Change and the U.S.-based news forum EthioMedia, which are also banned in Ethiopia.
He has been detained at least seven times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, including in 2005, when he and his wife Serkalem were imprisoned for 17 months on treason charges for their critical reporting on the government's violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections, and briefly in February 2011 for "attempts to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia" after he published articles on the Arab uprisings.
Nega has been denied a license to practice journalism since 2005, yet he has continued to publish columns critical of the government's human rights record and calling for an end to political repression and corruption.
Nega was again arrested Sept. 14, 2011, after he published a column questioning the government's claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticizing the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu on terror charges earlier that week.
Shortly after his arrest, Nega was charged with affiliation with the banned political party Ginbot 7, which the Ethiopian government considers a terrorist organization. On Nov. 10, Nega was charged and further accused of plotting with and receiving weapons and explosives from neighboring Eritrea to carry out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia. State television portrayed Nega and other political prisoners as "spies for foreign forces."
He is being held in Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa, where detainees are reportedly often tortured.