Ethiopia's Zone9 Bloggers were acquitted by an Addis Ababa court on Friday, October 16 after spending 18 months in prison, mostly awaiting trial on baseless charges of terrorism and inciting violence. They have yet to walk free from Kilinto prison, but their families say they will be released by Monday, October 19, if not sooner.
The four bloggers had all contributed to Zone9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability.
One member of the group, Befeqadu Hailu—also a Global Voices author—has not been cleared of a remaining charge under Article 257 of the Ethiopian criminal code, but reportedly it is a minor charge, for which the maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment. As Befeqadu has been in prison since April 25, 2014, sources close to him assume that the penalty will be moot.
A stark example of Ethiopia's broken justice system and total disregard for freedom of expression, the Zone9 case united Ethiopians on social media under the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, which has remained a force on Twitter since the day of the arrest. Today the hashtag lit up with expressions of joy and vindication:
Thank You World for Supporting and Echoing our long lasted #FreeZone9Bloggers campaign! it proves that SOLIDARITY IS THE GREATEST ENERGY!
— Ahmed® (@Hamoudu) octubre 16, 2015
So , I presume, this marks the end of this undeserved ordeal and anxiety! Relief!!! #FreeZone9Bloggers #Zone9BloggersFreed
— Mesay S. Taye (@MesaySTaye) octubre 16, 2015
An endless witch-hunt by a powerful gov't couldn't find a single crime in #FreeZone9Bloggers because they were innocent to begin with. Glad! — Amanuel Tesfaye (@ethio_style) octubre 16, 2015
After 18 months in detention charges against Zone 9 bloggers dropped #FreeZone9Bloggers http://t.co/XtAVQjbhHD pic.twitter.com/1ifswS8w9P — ECADF Ethiopian News (@ECADF) octubre 16, 2015
Six members of the Zone9 collective, along with three journalist contacts, were arrested and taken from their homes on April 25 and 26, 2014, and detained for 11 weeks before authorities charged them under Ethiopia's infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which has been used to imprison several prominent journalists and bloggers who have written critically about the government and ruling party.
Five members of the original group were absolved of all charges and released on July 8, 2015. The fate of the remaining four—Befeqadu, Natnael, Atnaf and Abel— remained unknown until today, October 16. During the course of their imprisonment, the bloggers appeared before a judge 39 times, only to be turned away by prosecutors’ requests for “more time” to investigate the case.
Many supporters on Twitter were quick to emphasize the degree to which the case exposed Ethiopia's failed judicial system:
It took a year and a half to throw out a completely botched case riddled with fake evidence and lying witnesses. WASTE! #FreeZone9Bloggers — Zecharias Zelalem (@ZekuZelalem) octubre 16, 2015
Some put words like “court” and “judiciary” in quotation marks:
Finally #FreeZone9Bloggers is free. But no thanks ‘the judiciary ‘. #Congrats Zone 9
— Yosef Tadesse (@chombe_Bencho) octubre 16, 2015
Others asked if the government will take responsibility for the damage it caused to the bloggers and their families:
Am happy ,but angry as usual we r living in z country where the gvt can arrest anybody based on nothing #FreeZone9Bloggers
— solomon mengesha (@solomen76) octubre 16, 2015
Now is the time to take the campaign to the next level, we demand #Ethiopia/n gov't to ask apology from Zone 9 bloggers. #FreeZone9Bloggers
— Fasiledes (@Fasiledesfasil) octubre 16, 2015
The question of what will happen to other citizens imprisoned for writing or speaking critically about the government—such as Zelalem Workagenegu, a blogger who was jailed after applying to participate in a social media and digital tools training—seems more pressing than ever. As many supporters pointed out, the acquittal may not mean that Ethiopia plans to change its ways.
Now the #Zone9bloggers are free, will #FreeZone9Bloggers morph into #FreeEthiopia? It's not yet a free speech paradise in that country.
— Nwachukwu Egbunike (@feathersproject) octubre 16, 2015
Expiration Date for #FreeZone9Bloggers – October 16, 2015. Expiration Date for #FreeEthiopia – Mysterious.
— Alemayehu Gemeda (@uheyamela) octubre 16, 2015