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Judge Withdraws from Case Against Bloggers, Journalists

Tayitu 14th Tayitu 14th

Blogger alleges intimidation, mistreatment by prison officers

Sheleme Bekele, a judge presiding over the case of Zone9 bloggers and journalists, withdraws from the case following a motion by defendants for his removal.

On Thursday, the 19th criminal bench of the Federal High Court rejected the defendants’ appeal for the removal of Judge Sheleme. The bench is a three judge panel and the decision was rendered by the other two judges.

However, Judge Sheleme told defendants and court attendants that he has withdrawn from the case on his own motion.

“Although the appeal for my removal is rejected, I do not wish to continue to sit over the case. I have withdrawn on my own motion,” Judge Sheleme said.

On Tuesday, a motion signed by nine of the defendants sought for the removal of the presiding judge stating that he has failed to ensure a speedy trial over the last six months.

The defendants stated their grievance against the court for granting the prosecution two chances to amend the charge instead of rejecting the charge and setting them free on the second occasion. They also criticized the judge for accepting a charge which they said is not amended as per the court’s order and which narrows their ability to defend. They also accused the judge of repeatedly cutting them off while trying to speak in court.

Their motion was rejected by the two judges for lack of sufficient reason and evidence to warrant the presiding judge’s removal.

“Judge Sheleme did not even preside over the hearing in which the defendants alleged that he prevented them from speaking,” one of the judges said reading from the court’s decision. They also said much of the decisions passed by the court were unanimous and that there is no sufficient reason to believe that the presiding judge would be biased.

Meanwhile, Abel Wabella, a blogger who is named in the charge as the seventh defendant, alleged in court of intimidation and mistreatment at the hands of prison officers. He said the threat followed an incident in which he entered a bus which was heading to prison after the previous day hearing without being handcuffed.

“It is not my responsibility to put handcuffs on but they threatened me that they would drag my corpse,” Abel told the judges. “They have also taken away a hearing aid I am forced to use as a result of previous beating.”

“I do not know what would happen to me when I go back. All I ask is for the court to protect me,” Abel told the judges as friends and relatives including his father weep inside the courtroom.

He said he was “chained like a dog the whole night and was handcuffed only before coming to court”.

Judges called on representative of the Addis Ababa Prison Administration who described himself as Deputy Sergeant Zewdu to respond to the defendant’s allegations in writing.

The nine bloggers and journalists – Abel Wabella, Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berhane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis – remain in custody since April 2014. One member of the group, Soliyana Shimeles, a blogger, is charged in absentia.

The defendants are accused of causing “serious risk to the safety or health of the public or section of the public” and “serious damage to property” under the anti-terrorism proclamation.

The case is adjourned for the 20th time until a new judge is appointed by the court administration. The defendants could be set to enter plea when the pre-trial resumes on February 18.

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