Court orders Ethiopia ‘Zone 9’ bloggers to face new charges


Addis Ababa – An Ethiopian court on Thursday ordered two bloggers who had been critical of the government to face trial again more than a year after they were acquitted of terrorism charges.

Prosecutors had appealed the October 2015 ruling that absolved five bloggers from the Zone 9 website of allegations of plotting attacks and having links with a banned group in a case that rights groups decried as an attack on press freedom.

After more than a year of adjournments, the Supreme Court in Addis Ababa ruled that two of the bloggers, Atnaf Berhane and Natnail Feleke, should face new charges of inciting violence.

The bloggers were among six from the Zone 9 website who were arrested in April 2014 as part of a wider crackdown on journalists and bloggers in the East African country.

Two were released in July of the following year, however, while the remaining four were charged with terrorism alongside another blogger, Soleyana Gebremichael, who was tried in absentia as she was living in exile in the United States.

Those arrested in the sweep spent 18 months in jail before the acquittal, in what rights groups slammed as a “needless waste of their lives.”

One of those acquitted on terrorism charges and freed in 2015, Befekadu Hailu, is still awaiting trial for a charge of inciting violence.

Hailu and Feleke were briefly imprisoned again during a wave of anti-government protests that swept Ethiopia last year and led to the imposition of a nationwide state of emergency.

The bloggers’ detention was condemned as unjust by groups such as Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Ethiopia at 142 out of 180 countries on its press freedom index.

Berhane said the new charges stemmed from a confession he made shortly after his arrest where he admitted to being trained on how to encrypt his communications.

“We had to confess because we wanted to get out alive,” Berhane said.

The group’s attorney Ameha Mekonnen said it was up to prosecutors to decide whether to ultimately take the two bloggers to court on the new charges.

If they do, he planned to challenge the admissability of their confessions.

“This court relied much on confessions. We have to show the illegitimacy of the confessions,” Mekonnen said.

The bloggers face up to 10 years imprisonment if convicted.

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