Ethiopia's Zone9 Bloggers Head Back to Court After 15 Months Behind Bars

Police lead Natnael Feleke (center right) and fellow blogger Atnaf Berahane (center left) to court. Photo courtesy of Trial Tracker Blog.

Police lead Natnael Feleke (center right) and fellow blogger Atnaf Berahane (center left) to court. Photo courtesy of Trial Tracker Blog.

Five members of Ethiopia's Zone9 blogging collective expect to learn their fate this Wednesday, August 19, when a panel of three judges will meet at Addis Ababa's Lideta High Court to rule on whether the defendants will walk free or or face another round of trial.

As the 15 months-old botched trial reaches a critical juncture just a few days before the Federal High Court goes on summer recess, we offer a brief summary of the case, along with the proceedings and the possible outcomes of what feels like a never-ending trial.

The case against Zone9

The bloggers of Zone9 covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and sought to promote human rights and government accountability. Known for their critical stance on government policies and practices, they faced various threats before they were arrested in April of 2014, on informal accusations of inciting social unrest via online means. After spending many weeks in pre-trial detention at Maekalawi, an Addis Ababa prison notorious for its harsh conditions, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

They now stand accused of terror and treason-related charges for using encryption tools for their online communications and blogging. The Zone9ers’ 21-page charge sheet specifies the laws the regime claims the bloggers have violated since May 2012. Read more on this here and here.

Five of the nine group members originally arrested (one is being tried in absentia) were released on July 8 and 9 of 2015, a few weeks prior to Barack Obama's historic visit to the country. Authorities dropped all charges against the five, with no formal explanation. No changes have been made to the charges against the four Zone9 bloggers who remain in prison.

Critics suggest that the partial release of Zone9 writers was government’s attempt to deflect mounting criticism about Ethiopia’s dreadful human rights record approaching the Obama visit.

Timeline of Zone9 case by Endalk Chala.

Timeline of Zone9 case by Endalk Chala.

Trial postponed 33 times

The Zone9ers’ trial has been postponed 33 times. Judges have adjourned the case continuously, accepting a panoply of reasons for postponement, ranging from the banal to the bizarre. At a recent hearing, prosecutors pleaded for an adjournment of the case due to what they described as “a shortage of time” to review the case. The judges accepted this as a valid reason, despite the fact that the bloggers have spent more than a year in a prison.

Often times the proceedings were adjourned the moment the defendants set foot in the court room. On some occasions the defendants did not even have a chance to listen to what their counselors said in the court room.

When the government decided to suddenly discontinue the case against five of the writers and let them walk free, the judges did not know about it. Government officials insisted that the five writers were released based on the law of the country, and those who are now free had minimal involvement in the alleged crime. But this sudden move left observers with more questions than answers. Why did the government release just five individuals while keeping the others, when they were all originally charged with the same crime? Will the partial release of the bloggers have an impact on the course of the trial of the others?

What might happen next

A fair trial is all but impossible under the Ethiopian judicial system, which is generally described as dissent-controlling apparatus of the regime. Although the release of five defendants created a short-lived optimism in July, various outcomes are possible on Wednesday. This could include a ruling that amounts to guilty verdicts, another round of long term adjournments, or even an acquittal.

After the partial release of the writers in July, government officials justified their decision to keep the remaining bloggers behind bars, issuing statements containing a wide range of flawed arguments. Those statements could provide the first clear glimpse of how the trial is likely to unfold on Wednesday, not just in terms of immediate decisions of the judges – guilty verdicts or acquittals – but also in terms of precisely how the government intends to release the bloggers.

In a sit-down interview following the Obama visit and televised on the country's sole TV network, veteran journalist Tefera Gedamu asked Minister of Government Communication Affairs Redwan Hussein, “Why didn’t you release some of them as a gesture of good will… was it not that possible? I know you say there is a due process of law…”

Redwan responded that the government would give pardon and parole when there is a reason to do so. He also defended the partial release of the bloggers, redoubling his indication that the remaining bloggers would not be released, that their case would not be dropped, and that the threat of going back to prison would be hanging over the heads of the released ones as well. He continued:

The level of their offense must be weighed…those which have a milder offense as compared to others, though each and every one of them could be convicted… if they behave and if their release outweighs the public interest …that serves the public interest rather than them staying behind bars, then they will be released.

Tedros Adhanom Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia also spoke along the same lines as Redwan when questioned by VOA Amharic service.

These statements are indications that the high court will likely uphold the convictions these government officials made in public. However, the statements can also be read to indicate that the government intends to release the bloggers after their conviction through clemency. Whatever the outcome, a robust array of online voices will continue to say #FreeZone9Bloggers until they are all released.

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