Nairobi — The Ethiopian government should immediately drop politically motivated charges brought against 10 bloggers and journalists on July 17, 2014, under the country's deeply flawed anti-terrorism law, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Ethiopian authorities arrested six of the bloggers and three journalists on April 25 and 26. They have been detained in Maekelawi, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector in Addis Ababa. The court charged the nine with having links to banned opposition groups and trying to violently overthrow the government, local media reported. A tenth blogger, who was not in Ethiopia at the time of the arrests, was charged in absentia.
"Ethiopia's courts are making a mockery of their own judicial system," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Hiding behind an abusive anti-terrorism law to prosecute bloggers and journalists doing their job is an affront to the constitution and international protection for free expression."
The charges are part of an intensified crackdown in Ethiopia in recent months against perceived political opponents, Human Rights Watch said.
The six bloggers in custody are Atnaf Berahane, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, and Zelalem Kibret. Soliana Shimeles was charged in absentia. The three journalists are Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, an editor at weekly magazine Addis Guday.
The bloggers are part of a blogging collective known as Zone 9, which provides commentary on current events in Ethiopia. Zone 9 is the section of Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa where many political prisoners are held. The Zone 9 group had stopped blogging in February after security officials harassed the group and questioned them about their work and alleged links to political opposition parties and human rights organizations.
Zone 9 announced on Facebook on April 23 that they would resume blogging, and on April 25 and 26 the six bloggers were arrested. They were detained for over 80 days without charge, and remain in custody.
Their lawyer, Ameha Mekonnen, has had only sporadic access to them, and family members were not allowed to meet with them until July 9. The lawyer plans to bring a civil suit about irregularities in the legal process, media reports said.
The bloggers and journalists are accused of connections to Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), two of five organizations designated as terrorist organizations in 2011 by the House of Federation, the Ethiopian parliament.
Human Rights Watch has not yet obtained the charge sheets, but credible media reports say that the bloggers and journalists are alleged to have taken directions from Ginbot 7 and OLF, planning and organizing terrorist acts, and agreeing to overthrow the government through force.
Judge Tareke Alemayehu was reported in the media saying that the group "took training in how to make explosives and planned to train others," accusing them of plotting "to destabilize the nation" and using blogging as a cover for "clandestine" activities.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have repeatedly raised concerns about Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law's overly broad definition of "terrorist acts" and provisions on support for terrorism.
Its vague prohibition of "moral support" for terrorism has been used to convict a number of journalists. Since 2011, at least 11 journalists, and possibly many more, have been convicted for their journalistic activities, even though the Ethiopian constitution and international law protect media freedom.
Three of the Zone 9 bloggers were outside of Ethiopia when their colleagues were arrested. According to media reports, one of these, Soliana Shimeles, was charged in absentia with coordinating foreign relations for the group and coordinating digital security training with "Security in-a-box", a publicly available training tool used by advocates and human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch has documented how the Ethiopian government monitors email and telephone communications, often using information unlawfully collected, without a warrant, during interrogations.
"The fact that bloggers used digital security isn't terrorism but common sense, especially in a repressive environment like Ethiopia," Lefkow said. "The government should drop these charges and immediately release these nine journalists and bloggers, as well as others who have been wrongfully prosecuted under the anti-terrorism law."
Others caught up in the government's recent crackdown are four opposition leaders affiliated with political parties - Yeshewas Asefa of the Blue Party, Abraha Desta of the Arena Tigray party, and Daniel Shibeshi and Habtamu Ayalew of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party. They were arrested on July 8, 2014, accused of providing support to terrorist groups, media reports said. They are scheduled to appear in court on August 14.
On June 23 or 24, Andargachew Tsige, a British citizen and secretary-general of Ginbot 7, was deported to Ethiopia from Yemen while in transit, in violation of international law prohibitions against sending someone to a country where they are likely to face torture or other mistreatment. He had twice been sentenced to death in absentia for his involvement with Ginbot 7.
His whereabouts in Ethiopia are unknown. He has been detained for more than three weeks without access to family members, legal counsel, or UK consular officials, in violation of Ethiopian and international law.