(Nairobi) – Ethiopian authorities should immediately release nine bloggers and journalists arrested a year ago who are being prosecuted on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The six bloggers, who belong to the Zone 9 blogging collective, and three journalists were arrested on April 25 and 26, 2014, in a coordinated sweep in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. They were charged under the criminal code and anti-terrorism law for having links to banned opposition groups and trying to violently overthrow the government.
In the past year the court in the Zone 9 bloggers trial has adjourned 27 times, prolonging the case seemingly unnecessarily. The unreasonable delays, lack of access to lawyers, and various procedural irregularities raise serious concerns about the defendants’ rights to due process and a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said. The next hearing is scheduled for May 26, 2015, two days after Ethiopia’s general elections.
“The stop-start Zone 9 trial underscores concerns that this is a spurious prosecution before a court under the government’s thumb,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop the charges and release these young Ethiopians, so they can contribute to the political debate rather than to the prison population.”
Several of the bloggers have alleged that they have been mistreated in detention. There has been no meaningful investigation of the allegations. And on March 24, after several hearings, the judge in the case dismissed the allegations for “lack of evidence.”
As of the 26th court hearing, on April 8, a total of 18 witnesses had been presented, the vast majority of whom merely testified that they were present when the police obtained the documents presented as evidence, during house searches or from the defendants’ computers. No witness has suggested anything that backs up the criminal charges against the bloggers and journalists. The police and prosecutors have continued to ask for more time to produce witnesses.
Two people told Human Rights Watch that they were approached by security officials to provide testimony against the Zone 9 bloggers. Each said they were told they would receive preferential treatment by the authorities in their own cases if they testified against the bloggers. They said they did not personally know the bloggers nor had been witness to any of the bloggers’ activities. The two refused to testify.
The arrest of the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists is part of a wider government crackdown against independent voices, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2010, at least 60 Ethiopian journalists have fled into exile, including 30 in 2014 alone. Another 19 or more journalists languish in prison. Government harassment and intimidation caused at least six independent publications to close in 2014.
The arrested bloggers are part of a blogging collective known as Zone 9, which provided commentary on social, political, and other events of interest to young Ethiopians. The six bloggers are Atnaf Berahane, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, and Zelalem Kibret. The three journalists are Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, an editor at the weekly magazine Addis Guday.
Addis Guday has closed, and a number of its employees are living in exile due to a concerted pattern of threats and harassment of staff. In October 7, the Addis Guday publisher, Endalkachew Tesfaye, was sentenced in absentia to three years and three months in prison.
The bloggers and journalists were arrested, three days after Zone 9 announced they would resume blogging again after several dormant months. Initially they were detained in Maekelawi, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector in Addis Ababa where Human Rights Watch and others have documented mistreatment in detention. They were not formally charged until July 17. Soliana Shimeles, another Zone 9 blogger, who was not in Ethiopia at the time of the arrests, was charged in absentia.
The prosecution claims the bloggers and journalists received support from Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), both among groups designated as “terrorist organizations” in 2011 by the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the lower chamber of Ethiopia’s parliament. They are also accused of using digital encryption to communicate, of getting training in “making and detonating explosives,” and of having connections with ESAT, an opposition satellite television station based in the diaspora. The charge sheet states that ESAT “is the mouthpiece of the terrorist organization [Ginbot 7].”
The charge sheet, obtained by Human Rights Watch, indicates that “evidence” against the defendants was obtained from their homes and laptops and includes documentation related to digital security and various media articles related to their online campaigns on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and respect for the Ethiopian constitution. Documents about the activities of Ginbot 7 and the OLF were also cited as evidence. Some of the material cited as evidence has still not been presented to the defendants’ lawyer.
Given restrictions on traditional media in Ethiopia and pervasive government telephone surveillance, social media provides an important platform for young, educated Ethiopians to share information and news. But the arrest and prosecution of the Zone 9 bloggers has had a wider chilling effect on freedom of expression, especially among critically minded bloggers and online activists.
Tools used by online activists around the world to protect their privacy and the safety of their contacts are not viewed by many net savvy Ethiopians as a viable option given the concern that using ordinary encryption and digital security tools might be cited as evidence against them, as has been the case with the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists.
“When human rights activists and bloggers try to protect their privacy online it isn’t terrorism, it’s common sense,” Lefkow said. “Ethiopia, like other governments, should help protect the safety of activists and journalists by promoting use of encryption, not punishing it.”
Ethiopia’s prime minister and other senior government officials have accused the Zone 9 bloggers in the media of having links to “terrorist groups,” seriously undermining the presumption of innocence, a fundamental right. The court has also failed to properly respond to the allegations of mistreatment. Detainees have had only erratic access to legal counsel. Family members were not allowed to meet with the defendants until 13 weeks after their arrest, and continue to have difficulty visiting their relatives. These and other issues raise serious due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have repeatedly raised concerns about Ethiopia’s use of the anti-terrorism law in politically motivated prosecutions. The law contains overly broad definitions of “terrorist acts” and “encouragement for terrorism.” Its vague prohibition of “moral support” for terrorism has been used to convict a number of journalists. Since 2011, at least 11 journalists, and possibly many more, have been convicted for their journalistic activities, contrary to media freedom protections under the Ethiopian constitution and international law.