Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Unsettling Testimony of Befekadu

Befe“So what do you think is your offense?” my interrogator signed off with this intriguing question after he made me recount my works as an activist and progressive blogger. Soon after, when my captors permitted me to be reunited with my blogger friends, who are now described as ‘associates’ in the lexicon of inmates we have realized that we were all asked this same question “So what do you think is your offense?” This question is intriguing because it has a comprehensive and totalizing power to describe the entire interrogation process. It is intriguing because it sheds light into our innocence or our into our refusal to acknowledge what our captors suspected us of violating. Yes, our captors probed us severely but they all ended with the same question “So what do you think is your offense?” The whole point of the investigation was not to proof or to disproof our offenses but it was to make us plead guilty. With that, our brief two years of operation as Zone9ers which was a perplexity for a lot of people has got answers. Observers perplexed why Ethiopian government tolerated Zone9ers for so long. Given the sensitive nature of Ethiopia’s government to freedom of expression the annoying perplexity of these people is understandable. As the curiosity of these perplexed people come to end; we got apprehended, investigated and blame is being laid up on us for committing acts of ‘crime’ by being a ‘member’ and ‘accepting missions’ of Ginbot7/May 15 and OLF as well. Next in a row is ‘due processes’ in the prosecution, but I believe there are issues that necessitate this piece. So I decided to write this. How did our incarceration & investigation go? Are we really a member of Ginbot7/May15? If not why have they arrested us? Will they release us soon?

No matter what, the bounds exist among people if they write about Ethiopia’s s political reality they will have to survive with a peril of incarceration as long as they live in the country. I believe that is why Prof. Mesfin poignantly described Ethiopians as those who have gone through imprisonment, those who are now in prison and those who await imprisonment. In his book, Prof. Mesfin cited these three layers of Ethiopian captives to his unidentified conversant, credit to him, but we believe everyone who has to survive with a dread to exercise their freedom of expression live in outer ring of the prison, the Nation Itself, that is why we call our blog Zone9. Merely we were two weeks into our nascent blogging when they made our collective blog inaccessible in Ethiopia in 2012. We gave it a trial until the end but we knew that the fate of our blocked blogs could be our own. We know that we could end up being arrested. In the days and weeks leading up to our incarceration in April 2014, government security agents have been threatening us about our imminent arrest but it is only human to get shaken when it happened. The arrest besieged six obtainable members of the blogging collective and our three journalist allies. Here; I would like to point out that the incarceration of our three journalist allies was a bit of shock at least for us; but later it became noticeable that we were only used as a pretext and their arrest is part of a grand arrangement. The highly coordinated manner of our seizures on its own speaks volumes about government’s pre-calculated grand arrangement. With the exception of one of the journalist (Asmamaw) we were all arrested on Friday the 25th of April on or about 11:00 pm; from our respective locations. Asmamaw was arrested the next morning. By the time we were seized and taken to the detention center the search ‘warrant’ that authorized the law enforcement personnel was well over its time limit at least according to Ethiopian law. In fact, the unlawful intrusion of our rights starts right here. Without delay, we become victims of various unlawful courses of actions.

The very idea of setting a foot in the compound of the ill-famed Maeklawi detention center gives a cold shiver to anyone. But my sheer optimistic trust that the brutal and inhuman treatment of people as Ethiopia’s distant memory saved me from trembling while I was escorted into the compound. So were my friends, I suppose. What is more; we had nothing to be scared of because; we are neither undercover agents nor members of armed forces; we are just writers. However, as soon as I arrived at Maeklawi detainees informed me that I am in one of the notorious section of the detention center called ‘Siberia’. In just less than a week I felt I was living right in the middle of the account of Human Rights Watch report of the 2013 titled- They Want a Confession.

The Standard Maeklawi Interrogation

The standard Maeklawi interrogation methods are more of dominance and submission, rather than confidence and creativity. Instead of extracting information from ‘suspects’ the police officers usually fool around; they spend too much time in I know it all kind of game. If this does not succeed in extracting information, they force confessions by punching, beatings, extended physical exercise and flogging. I concluded that this is the standard interrogation routine in Maeklawi since I have endured it with five different police officers. Other detainees have informed me that they have gone through the same procedure. In fact I had an opportunity to converse with detainees who have passed through even wicked procedures that intrude detainees’ privacies. Some detainees got stripped off their clothes and asked to perform stand up-sit dawn. Particularly, I was able to meet with people who suffered from medieval type of torture in an anonymous detention center before they were brought to their pre-trial detention center at Maeklawi. These detainees suffer from diabolical barbarity such as forcible extraction of their nails from their fingers, flogging and hooding; among these are students from Haromaya University. What is nauseating is the extracted information from detainees in anonymous detention center is usually brought to their pre-trial detention center for the purpose of verification. Detainees never know where they were taken for this brutal investigation; because they are hooded. The anonymous detention centers are like black holes. Ethiopian prisoners’ anguish which appeared to be so distant in memory is not that far after all.

Finally, we were made to plead guilty, we confessed under duress. We could not bear with the ceaseless brutal and psychologically degrading pressure. We could not carry on surviving the hellhole of Maeklawi. We end up recounting what our detectives would like better to listen. To the delight of our detectives we have added as many self-incriminating phrases as possible. But phrases such as ‘yes we wanted to incite violence’ never pleased them. Subsequently they have re-written our confessions so that it will fit their frame. Some of us tried to explain; others we had to endure beatings but at last we all succumbed to the pressure and signed the carefully scripted confession pages with the exception of Abel, he refused to sign the rewritten confession pages. He has survived the pain but even his confession pages are complete mendacities let alone ours.

Now we are a living witnesses that torture is part of Maeklawi’s ceremony that reveals the ‘truth’ of a crime. I thought police interrogations were so complex involving high end skills, knowledge and psychological tactics to establish facts. Thanks to our time at Maeklawi I have realized that police interrogations in Maeklawi are not that complex. In fact they are simple. They are like machines that produce guilt in the detainees. In Maeklawi, the driving principle of police interrogations is ‘you are guilty unless proven otherwise’. Your pleas for innocence or explanation for that matter fell on deaf ears; detectives will cook a crime for you; I call this Maeklawi-sque interrogations.

My experience, especially our own case; convinced me stronger than ever that Maeklawi should go through a complete reform. One can simply observe that there is a significant economy of power invested in Maeklawi. The investigation is not principled; detectives ingratiate the power wielders. I think they are recruited based on their willingness to carry out the desires of the power wielders, not to uphold the rule of law. I think the staffing of employees should be merit based. These kinds of law enforcement employees should be knowledgeable if they are not they might overlook insightful information when they deal with real criminals and this might jeopardized the safety & security of the country.

An Apple & Orange

The evident part of each of our confession pages which forced us plead guilty were our online campaigns, our plans, the articles we wrote, the trainings we partake, the training manuals, the skills we attempted to impart. I had to admit that we all expected that their plan was to indict us with agitating the public to strife. We thought the ceiling for our ‘crime’ is accusing us of violating article 257/8 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. But eureka, when they formally charge us we have realized that we are charged with Ethiopian terrorism law, particularly with violation of its Article 4 which can result in severe punishment of 15 years to life imprisonment. Honestly, speaking this makes my face beam with smile.

The terrorism charge is smirking because the evidences brought to support the charge are merely our writings, the press releases we wrote during our online campaigns and different training manuals. Other than these documents, there are three ‘documents’ which purportedly proof our connections with Ginbot 7 and OLF. The first one is Ginbot7’s newsletter from September 2009. This newsletter was located in Natnael’s email. Here, it is important to note that Ethiopia’s anti-terror proclamation was not passed into law and Ginbot7 was not yet labeled as a terrorist organization when Natty received the newsletter. The second document was, the one located in the house of Soliyana’s mom during the search and seizures. The alleged document is the guiding document to draft members of Ginbot7 popular force. Apparently, Soli’s mom refused to acknowledge this document insisting it was inserted by the security agents themselves in their house rather than located. In any way this should not be a big deal especially considering Soli’s stance on armed struggle. We all know that Soli does not support regime change by means of armed struggle. Before my detention last time I check her Twitter bio has an adage “no for war”. The third document is the political program of OLF which was located in the personal computer of Mahlet. In fact, Mahlet has had many political programs of other Oromo political parties but they were not presented as evidence. I don’t want to engage in ping pong kind of argument that yields nonentity. Apparently, for our loved ones if not our leaders it is clear that possessing these documents does confirm neither allegiance nor working relationship with both Ginbot7 & OLF. Our activities and the charges we received are like an apple & orange.

The preposterous of all allegations is the one which blames us of receiving $2400 money using Natnael as our contact person. This money was a remittance transferred from Article 19 to encourage Reyoot, an imprisoned journalist and of course support her family. During our interrogation we have explained this fact in great detail to the police officers. Adjacent to our claim attached was the receipt to proof the transfer was made by Article 19. But in the charge sheet they tried to get us perceived wrongly and they have attempted to show that we have received the money from the ‘terrorist’ organizations. I imagine they know our innocence; but I think either they maliciously want us suffer or they want to take their time until we prove our innocence.

Is bad excuse better than none? Not exactly

Some conundrums are simply explained in old adages like bad excuse is better than none but I think our story can be best explained in an Ethiopian folk story of a hyena and a donkey. The story goes like this. Once upon a time a donkey and a hyena were drinking from the same stream of water. The belligerent hyena whined to the donkey that she is making his water filthy despite he is drinking up in the stream; but the donkey told to the hyena to stop looking for a reason to prey on her. People say a bad excuse is better than none but not in our case! Our story is much more analogous to the story of the hyena and the donkey than to the old adage.

They arrested us without knowing anything other than our names. We genuinely believed that if they know what we have been doing they might understand us. With that good will we have even passed some of our writings to them through one of their undercover agent who has been following us before our detention but I don’t think they have read the anthology of our writings. Indeed our detectives were craving to plead us guilty in a very desperate manner. But why would they do that? They might want us to stay away from Ethiopian social media sphere until the upcoming Ethiopian national election in May 2015. Hitherto, we have the first-hand experience of favoritism and partiality towards the ruling party. What is left is to try out to defend ourselves using the judicial system. For now let me ponder about our future; will they ‘release’ us? I will not dwell on the legal possibilities of our ‘acquitance’ but I will only look into our hypothetical chances. Even though the Ethiopian Federal Police which is an apparatus of the government arrested us without having probable cause; they still thought they would find some sort of transgression. As a matter of fact they could not find anything that would get us accused even in the wildest interpretation of the already broad anti-terrorism proclamation. However; this has not prevented them from using it. The verbosity and trivialities of the charges on its own is an apparent suggestion for the sham nature of their accusations. But I do not think we will get ‘exonerated’ any time soon. Why because;

1. EPRDF is bullheaded. They are stubborn in annoying way. If they think the detainees have generated a lot of support and are critical of their governance. They don’t want to release their captives without dehumanizing them. EPRDF is foolishly childish. Note; I am not saying the global support we received is not helping us. Your support is our daily bread. It is warming us like sunshine. I am sure the day shall come on which we say thank you for your support.

2. They don’t want take a risk. Even though they have seen our innocence regarding their fear of inciting violence after the upcoming election; they did not want to take a risk. In weeks leading up to our arrest they have been accusing us of planning color revolution following the national election using their media.

3. They want us suffer. They want us spend our time jail because we are strong critics of their policies.

4. They do not have any sense of decency that prevent them to hand dawn judgment on innocent people.

Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala

The Global War on Terror is Ethiopia’s War on Freedom of Expression: Key Lessons and Trends from Court Data

Many people must wonder why the court cases of Zone9 bloggers and journalists is kept on adjourned and re-adjourned time and again and what will their fates is going to look like after such a pointlessly stretched out trial. Although these trials are undoubtedly show trials, looking back on sample court cases of Ethiopia’s journalists of the last 9 years offer clues into the bloggers’ future.

The data which was collected from the registrar of Ethiopia’s Federal High Court show that the majority of the journalists charged with crimes of any sort are actually found to be guilty. The reports on many facets of appalling state of Ethiopia’s freedom of expression seem incomplete and anecdotal, but data-rich reports can help deepen perspective. Hence; this data show there is no doubt that Ethiopian journalists who faced these show trials are going to be found guilty and the data further shows that trials are all extended. For instance Temesegen Desalegn whose criminal defamation & outrage against constitutional order charges are going well over two years and it is still counting. Eskiner Nega’s court case took more than two years of trial which ended up in sentencing him 18 years of prison terms. Beyond its wider implication of making the business of lawyering helpless, it gives an impression that Article 29 of Ethiopia’s Constitution which deals with Freedom of Expression has no use.

As I write this blog post five weekly publications which cannot average a joint circulation of 20K per week are all charged with terrorism. It is confirmed that at least three of them will stop publication as their journalists went to exile. Since the controversial 2005 Ethiopian election the Ethiopian government has already prosecuted more than 200 hundred people pertinent with freedom of expression with numerous criminal charges and shut dawn hundreds of weekly magazines and newspapers and sends most of the journalists of theses media organizations went into exile (more on this later). It has deposed several state media journalists in relation with their work and the campaign shows no sign of relenting.

Based on my own experience and the sample data provided it is obvious that if Ethiopian journalists are charged with a crime of any sort (defamation, terrorism and treason) there is 95 % or more chance that they are probably guilty. It can only be said that Ethiopia is in a cycle of history where freedom of expression is only right when you praise the ruling regime or else you will be labeled terrorist. In the minds of Ethiopia’s rulers’ truth has no meaning and they don’t have barrier to shame. In fact in his latest blog post from prison Befeqadu put it poignantly that EPRDF, the ruling regime, do not have sense of decency that prevent them to hand dawn judgment on innocent people.

Kind request for crowd sourcing court data: People who have access to court data regarding freedom of expression please contact us. The above table needs to be completed.

Full Translation of Zone9ers Charge Sheet


Prosecutors need to have a good understanding of the meaning and use of language of the crime they try to describe in the charge sheet. I believe linguistic precision is of a paramount importance for people whose career putting down blame on people even though they have evidence to support their allegation. This is basic for people who claimed to have a legal obligation and a moral ground for keeping the country out of trouble as Hailemariam Desalegn repeatedly said to his interviewers. But do they have what they claim? Let’s see how an incompetent government writes a criminal charge sheet and hand dawn judgment on innocent people.

Much has been said, about the bogus nature of the terrorism charges. I believe people who follow this case know the charge sheet do not even have the least amount of truth in it but the way it is written and its presentation tells its spurious nature much better than a good blog post. So I decided to translate the 19 pages charge sheet as it is written in Amharic.

Anyone who has read the Amharic charge sheet must be aware that the poorly written charge sheet of the bloggers presents an illustration of how dreadful Ethiopia’s Justice System is. There are various instances of conflicting accounts of the crimes on the made-up charges, citation mishmash, absence of dates and mixing up European and Ethiopian calendar and instance of getting a name wrong. For example, the name of Edom & Tesfalem, two of the accused is not mentioned even not for a single time but they were made to sign 23 pages of confession papers between them.

Read the entire charge sheet in English below.

Abridged and contextually translated articles written by Zone 9 bloggers which are brought to support allegations – Part One

A guide to the works of Zone9ers which are brought to the court as an evidence. As the majority of the works are in Amharic it is important to have a glimpse of their work in English. The following are excerpts, quotes and passages translated contextually.

Note: This writings are brought to support the accusations of terrorism related activities.

Title: Freedom and Bread  

By: Natnael Feleke

Published date: June 5, 2012

In his introduction Natnael has painted the level of fear the country has been experiencing. He gave instances of this fear culture that engulfed Ethiopia. Elders advise young people to avoid discussing politics in public. He highlighted why freedom and bread are a contested issues in Ethiopian politics. He provocatively asked which (bread or freedom) should be prioritized. In the article organized in five subtitles Natnael has shown the plight of Ethiopians in relation with freedom and bread. Natnael argued even though we need bread we also need freedom as Zimbabwean blogger famously put it “we need food but we also need freedom to speak against people who steal our food”. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: The price of censorship   

By: Natnael Feleke

Published date: Feb 12, 2013

This article is written as part of advocacy efforts of Zone9ers to stop censorship in Ethiopia. In his anecdote Natnael used a video from a commemorative event organized by Pen America for award winning journalist Eskinder Nega. In the video (available here) American investigative journalist Carl Bernstein and actor, producer and director Issac Liev made a speech highlighting the achievement of journalist Eskinder Nega and the importance of freedom of speech. The reason Natnael make this event anecdotal to his article is to show how media operates in free environment contribute for the greater cause of humanity. He mentioned Carl Bernsteins investigative reporting during the Watergates scandal which led to the dramatic resignation of President Richard Nixon. He attributed the resignation of the president to the working and free American media environment of the 1970s. Natnael contrasted this with repressive media environment and the price journalists and bloggers pay to have an open and independent media environment. He further argued censorship and control has an economic impact. He made a reference of the works of the Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen. According to the article no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with democratic form of government and relatively free press. So Natnael has argued that free press is critically important in fight against poverty. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: Love and Exile

By: Solomon Abreha, Not a member of Zone9 and based in Europe

Published date: Oct 9, 2012

Unless brief introduction about the causes of exile the article is nothing political. It is about love affairs among Ethiopians who live in exile. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: Had Wael Ghonim been an Ethiopian

By: Befekadu Hailu

Published date: Jan 7, 2013

Befeqadu wrote an imaginary interview with the Egyptian Internet activist and computer engineer. He assumed what Ghonim would respond to his questions has he been Ethiopian.Excerpts from an imaginary interview.

Q: What is your name?

A: My name is Bekel Gerba, Reyot Alemu, Argaw Ashine, Mesfin Negah, Shibre Desalegne, Ahmedin Jebel, Olabna Lelisa, Eskinder Nega, Yusuf Abdela, Anduaalem Aragie. I am an Ethiopian whose human rights are downgraded and got harassed, beaten, incarcerated and exiled for just being myself.

Q: How old are you?

A: Well, I have lived my entire life under dictatorship

Q: Do you have any personal relationship with people you mentioned above?

A: I have never met them in person but they are all kind of inspiriting people. I share a dream of being free. I hope I will meet them in person one day.

Q: Why are you doing this?

A: I hate repression. It is so aching to see people downgraded from their dignified humanity to an object of repression. I will keep on doing what I am doing.

Q: Don’t you fear when you do this?

A: I have fears and fear is only human. But I shall keep doing what I am doing. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: Journalism or manufacturing consent    

By: Endalkachew H/Mikael

Published date: June 23, 2012

It is a piece which criticize the developmental journalism practiced by state media.  The writer argues state media journalism is used to manufacture consent. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: Let our voice be heard

By: Endalkachew H/Mikael and Befekadu Hailu

Published date: Aug 15, 2012

It is a feature article about repression of people’s right. The writers took the title from Ethiopian Muslims religious rights activists facebook page. They illustrated the lack of freedom across all spectrum of life. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: How should we be heard?

By: Mahlet Fantahun

Published date: Aug 11, 2012

In the article Mahlet commented on the basic communication breakdown between citizens and the government. She raised the importance of communication for good governance. She also commented on transient and ephemeral nature of Ethiopia’s media reporting and invited her readers to suggest any better ways of communications. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title:  Legacies and Visions of Meles Zenawi

By: Soliyana Shimeles  

Published date: Nov 12, 2012

On this piece Soliyana reflected on hyped and highly glorified legacies of Meles Zenawi. She listed ten major legacies that the late Meles has left behind. Bad governance, poor civic society organizations and fear are among them. It is a contrast for a flawless character Meles has got from state media. To read the Amharic version click here.

Title: Ethiopian Censorship and law past and present

By: Zelalem Kibret   

Published date: Feb 21, 2013

In this article Zelalem has reflected on censorship history and its implications in scholarly manner. He highlighted the Ethiopia’s legal frame work of censorship broadly. To illustrate his point he quoted Ethiopia’s most storied writer laureate Tsegaye Gebremedihin said “Among 41 theaters I have written (including the one’s I translated and wrote in English) twelve of them were all banned. Twenty one of them were tainted. Three of them were half altered. Four of them are not yet staged. From the three anthologies (two of them not yet published) of my poems I have compiled, thirsty seven individual poems got me spanked by the Ethiopia’s bureau of censorship, government security people, or top officials…. “. Zelalem conclude that even though the current Ethiopia’s constitution has avoided institutional censorship he has shown proclamations that have instituted censorship after the 2005 Ethiopia’s controversial election. He wrapped up his article with a beautiful quote from Ben Shahn “You have not converted a man because you have s silenced him”, To read the Amharic version click here.

Endalk Chala