(AFP) — An Ethiopian court jailed a former opposition spokesman for over six years Thursday as rights groups urged the UN to press for a probe into a crackdown on anti-government protests.

Judges in the capital Addis Ababa imposed a jail sentence of six years and six months on Yonatan Tesfaye, the former spokesman for the opposition Blue Party who was found guilty earlier this month of encouraging terrorism.

Yonatan was arrested in December 2015 after writing on Facebook that the government had used “force against the people instead of using peaceful discussion with the public.” “We’ll appeal,” Blue Party chairman Yeshiwas Assefa told AFP. “This is freedom of expression.”

Tesfaye’s detention came shortly after the start of anti-government protests by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, which caused the government to impose a nationwide state of emergency last October.

In a letter released Wednesday, 13 rights groups called on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to urge Ethiopia during its June meeting to allow an independent investigation into “atrocities committed by security forces to suppress peaceful protests and independent dissent.”

A crackdown on the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. The letter echoes complaints by the UN’s high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who said he was not allowed access to where the protests occurred during a visit to Ethiopia this month.

The rights groups – including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders – also called for the immediate release of journalists, rights defenders, opposition leaders and other protesters “arbitrarily detained” during and after the protests.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told BBC last month that he would not allow an independent investigation into the protests, saying the country’s human rights commission was up to the task.

The government has described the state of emergency as a necessary step to restore order to protest-wracked parts of the country while officials work to address the demonstrators’ grievances. In March, parliament extended the emergency decree for another four months.

 

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