Ethiopia Urged to Release Bloggers and Journalists

Internet café in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.
Internet café in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.

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.

According to Human Rights Watch, 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.

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“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.

Photo courtesy: Human Rights Watch, 2010 Photo

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