Government officially charged Ethiopian bloggers and journalists as a ‘terror’ suspects

A bi-weekly Amharic newspaper reported that seven out of nine members of the Zone9 blogging collective and three journalists are charged with ‘terrorism’ related activities. It was reported that the bloggers and journalists were brought to Lideta High Court on Thursday late in the afternoon of Addis Ababa time without prior announcement to their lawyers, family members and friends who follow the defendants’ case for the past three months.

The report pointed out that lawyer of the defendant bloggers and journalists, Amaha Mekonen was not around during the proceeding which the defendants protested to the presiding judge citing the absence of their lawyer as a reason. The judge accepted the protest of the bloggers and journalists and re-scheduled the’ trial’ for early morning hours of Friday July 18, 2014

The charges

  1. Working with organizations which are branded as ‘terrorist’ by Ethiopian government.The Ethiopian government charged the bloggers and journalists with the controversial anti-terrorism law which was enacted in 2009. The newspaper reported that the bloggers and journalists indicated for receiving training and financial support from two totally ideologically dissimilar Ethiopian political parties who are based in Europe and USA.
  2. Taking part in training of software tools  used for email encryptionThe bloggers and journalists are accused of taking part in training of an Internet encryption tools that are developed by Tactical Tech and Front Line Defenders, two Europe based human right NGOs.
  3. Underground OrganizationAccording to the news report the bloggers and journalists are also accused of organizing themselves clandestinely as Zone9 blogging collectives


The majority members of the Ethiopian online community have laughed off the charge as a poorly written fiction. Stay tuned since details charges will emerge by tomorrow as we are working to get hold of the written charges.

Endalk Chala

Interview with the lawyer of illegally detained Zone9 bloggers & journalists

Translator’s note

The first instance court of Arada bench was expected to wrap up the pre-trial ‘hearing’ which took more than 70 days and yet the bloggers were not even brought before the judge. Mr.Amaha a lawyer defending the bloggers & journalists who are detained on unclear but shaping up to be on terrorism charges expected the first instance court at Arada bench to rest the pre-trial procedure on Saturday. The court had set the 12th July hearing for closing arguments but with an extraordinary move the police referred the case to the Federal High Court without even the presence of the defendants and their lawyer himself. The shift overlooked the court and contravenes even the standard procedure of the biased justice system. The lawyer speaks to  Dawit Solomon, a journalist based in Addis Ababa about the issue. Here are the translated excerpts from the interview.

 DAWIT: What were your thoughts on your way to the court for Saturday’s procedure?

AMAHA: I expected the police might demand for more time to wrap up their interrogation as usual. I also sought to see how the court would reply to this repeated claim of the police. Nevertheless, to the shock of me and all people who were here what unfolded was really baffling. Since the detainees were not brought to the court some journalists went straight to the court’s registrar to ask about the case. Then a person who claimed himself as “the detective” of the case told the journalists since he is done with the interrogation he submitted the case for a prosecutor. He further claimed that the case is closed. This was what I was told by the journalists then I also went in to verify which I found it true. They closed the case without the presence of the defendants and without the presence of me who is representing them.

DAWIT: What action have you taken after you heard?

AMAHA: We have been to court’s compound a way earlier than the scheduled time of the hearing. When the detectives/ police officers presented their arguments it should be in our presence. I have tried to explain our disappointment to the judge. This is basically a grave breach of law.

DAWIT: So what is the encroachment? Where is the breach of the law?

AMAHA: It is this court that allowed the detectives to wrap up their interrogations within 28 days. Presumably up until now the defendants were under custody with at least (translator’s addition) the authorization of the court but from this moment on they are detained illegally without the sanction of the court. That is where the sort of encroachments lay. The police officers should have brought the defendants before the judge. They should have given details about the result of their investigation of the case to the court. It should have been the judge who should have determined if the case is  liable. It should have been the court which decides to grant or deny bail for the defendants based on the details presented to the court. They have closed the case at the first instance court and kept the defendants illegally (translator’s addition) without all these procedures. That is why I said it is a breach of law.

DAWIT: What will be next for the defendants? What can you do for them?

AMAHA: I will start a lawsuit on the behalf of the defendants. I need to guard the physical freedom of the defendants. I will wait until Monday since I have to get details about their lawsuit which they said they will begin on the defendants. I should learn details such as where and when will the lawsuits carry on.

DAWIT: So where will you launch the lawsuit to safeguard the individual freedom of the defendants and to require the police to bring the defendants before a judge or into court?

AMAHA: I will start the lawsuit at the Federal High Court.

DAWIT: Since last week the bloggers and journalists are allowed to be visited by their loved ones with the exception of Abel Wabela. What is the reason for him? Have you tried to find out the reason?

AMAHA: I have had a permission to visit the detainees at least once a week. Even though it is just for a single day I had a chance to speak with eight of them whom I represent in the court. Now I am told that the permission is limited to meet with just one of the detainees within a day. By this pace it would take me about four weeks to speak to all eight of the detainees. This is another serious breach of law. The defendants’ constitutional right of speaking with their lawyers should be respected.

Regarding Abel I have heard that he have some disagreements with the detectives who are assigned to investigate his case. But I should confirm this from Abel himself.

DAWIT: We have heard that the bloggers and journalists are forced to make false confessions. They were under extreme duress to make a clean breast of actions they have never participated and documents they have never produced. What does the law say about admissibility of confessions that are induced through coercion? Please tell me details especially in relation with anti-terrorism law?

AMAHA: Regarding confessions made to police officers the criminal procedure has established a series of rules. Confessions that are reportedly induced through coercion are not that admissible before the court or the judge. People should not be forced to confess on themselves.

DAWIT: It is expected the other three group of bloggers will be brought to court this afternoon (Monday). Considering what happened on Saturday will you anticipate the blogger to be brought before the court?

AMAHA: No I don’t expect they will be brought but I will honor the date and I will be in attendance

DAWIT: Thank you!

Note: This is not a literal translation (word to word translations) but contextual translations. Translated by Endalkachew Chala.

Zone9 bloggers are expected to be brought before judge in the early hours of Saturday

Six of the detained bloggers among which three are freelance journalists are expected to be brought at Arada first instance court on which they have appeared five times without meaningful ‘charge’. All of the detainees were allowed to have a limited access to visitors earlier this week. The detainees reported to their visitors that the police have closed their investigation and the pre-trial hearing might be over this week bringing a ‘legal’ case against the bloggers and journalists.

Cut off from the rest of world

The bloggers and journalists were detached from the rest of the world and they did not have a communication amongst themselves as well. Their subjugators never allowed them to have any form of communication. They reported to their visitors that they did not know what was going on outside their confinement. Befeqadu joked about the World Cup is about to be over before it began. No access to media, not even to government media. They were completely cut off from the rest of world.

Forced Confessions

The bloggers and journalists are all forced to make false confessions. They were told that Zone9 is a political secret operative not a blog. In his last hearing Befeqadu reported to the court that he was forced to sign a false confession by his investigators. The purpose of the signature is to base their charges on their own ‘confessions’. The assumption is if the bloggers and journalists have not engaged in an illegal activity they would not confess about it. This is to give false impression the public which do not have access to media other than government held media that the bloggers have confessed in engaging in illicit activities

Vowed to proof their innocence

Among the journalists who are detained Tesfalem joked ‘if we are lucky we will be charged in our next hearing’. Tesfalem reported that among the ‘evidence’ that have been brought against him by his investigators were two news stories which he has tweeted and re-tweeted from Addis based Ethiopian newspaper called the Reporter. Regardless of their forced false confessions they vowed to proof their innocence to the sham court. They have told their visitors they hopefully show the bogus nature of their accusations

Terrorism Charges

In remarkable shift from earlier allegations of working foreign human right NGOs the government is now cooking up terrorism charges. In his recent interview with the BBC Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has told the interviewer his journalism profession or blogging will not protect him from terrorism charges. Though most people don’t take him seriously since they consider him as doll of the ruling TPLF elites(the inner circle of the ruling regime), this might be a message they wanted him to convey.

Endalk Chala

Why Ethiopia criminalizes online free speech? Research round-up – review

Why does a country of about 90 million populations (Second in Africa next to Nigeria) with an Internet penetration of less than 2 percent need to criminalize an online free speech? It looks absurd right? Not exactly, considering government of Ethiopia’s inherent feudalistic desire to grip on every bit of information in the society criminalizing an online freedom of speech is something that is not unexpected.

The Ethiopian government’s record in handling the issues of freedom of expression which are enshrined in its own constitution is dreadful and it is reprehensible for a government that pride itself for lifting millions of people out of ‘poverty’. The issue of lifting millions of people out of poverty is dubious and it is usually calculated using data that comes from a statistical authority which is in the pocket of the ruling party. (More on that later) The matter is well documented in various researches and reports. Here is how the Ethiopian government rolls on the research reports. Understandably the reports are all from foreign based NGOs or members of Western academic institutes as there are neither academic nor civil society organizations which are allowed to operate freely in Ethiopia.

While the rest of African countries are enjoying a relatively superior level of access to the global information system via the Internet the monopolistic control of EthioTelecom, the only ISP in the country, by Ethiopian government hinders access to the majority of Ethiopians. The government claims that they are holding on the telecom sector because they believe it is only government not the private sector which can work towards realizing the objective of universal access of the Internet. But is the Ethiopian government working for the objective they set for themselves as achieving universal access of the Internet? Forget the cut-off date for the realization of this objective and the answer is no. Studies frequently have shown that beside meager level of access to telecom services the quality of the service is dreadfully bad.

The perseverance of such bad services is not without cause and for a detailed analysis of one of the cause which is corruption, see the WORLD BANK’s chapter eight report of the 2013. Corruption in the Telecommunications Sector in Ethiopia: A Preliminary Overview.

Most of the current news reports on the matter exclusively focused on describing the repression of journalists and bloggers and their report is about episode in time, with less or no political and social context of the country in which the media operates. A Sub-Saharan African media expert and journalism professor, Terje S. Skjerdal professor at Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, Kristiansand, Norway has made Ethiopian media and journalism his fiefdom of study over a number of researches now, about Ethiopia’s censorship, the roles of Ethiopian States in keeping media under their grip, about digital diasporas, about the fine between journalism and activism. In 2012 with his PhD thesis Terje show how journalism values are in a constant conflict in Ethiopian state media culture. They are all worth reading.

Even though too few there have been some excellent research reports about Ethiopia’s new media politics and repression. In this regard Iginio Gagliardone’s New media and the developmental state in Ethiopia is a superb piece of research report which tries to put the repression of the new media in perspective. The annual Freedom House report titled Freedom on the Net is a good starting place for those want to have a contextual understanding of the repression.

Elsewhere, if someone wonders to know the legal protection of freedom of expression, there are two papers worth your time. In 2010 Gedion Timothewos has written about the jurisprudential dearth of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Despite a poplar claim that says freedom of expression has at least a constitutional protection Gedion argues there are fairly high amount of limitations imposed on freedom of expression in Ethiopia through duly enacted laws .It available here. The other one is Tracy J. Ross’s paper which analyses Ethiopia’s press law. You can read it here.

Endalk Chala

The staged ‘hearing’ of the three bloggers Abel, Befeqadu and Mahlet concluded with another appointment for 6th time.

A Brief hearing yet very late start

The dramatic Sunday morning hearing was adjourned before it even started a the court registrar did not show up for the hearing but yet again set to continue as the registrar popped up out of nowhere. The judge decided to proceed with hearing that did not last for more than ten minutes and the hearing is adjourned for Monday 14th of July 2014 even though the police asked for more additional two weeks. The hearing started at least thirty minutes later than its scheduled time.

In side Arada Court Compound

Inside Arada Court Compound

Police Harassment

More than 300 hundred people have appeared to Arada First Instance Court to show solidarity with bloggers among which two individuals who tried to take a picture of the bloggers while they are being escorted to the court room are detained by the police. The fate of the detained individuals is not instantly clear. However eye witnesses detailed through their Twitter that individuals were harassed by the police. Attendees reported that the security was intense and the police forced them out from court ground.

False Confessions & Frustrations

Befeqadu Hailu reported to the court that he is made to make false confessions. He told the court anything which will come against him is not his confessions. The people who are forced to attend the hearing from a distance are frustrated and they compare the situation with an occupied militarily zone. The attendees waved their hands in greetings and give a message of support while the bloggers being escorted to the court room but police denied the crowd not to greet them by making the bloggers stay in the court room until crowd dispersed.


Defendants’ lawyer Ato Amaha briefing the  crowd

Defendants’ lawyer Ato Amaha briefing the crowd

This is all we have for today for more details please follow the #freezone9bloggers hash tag with still lively thread of discussions.

Pre-trial custody of Zone9ers ‘legal’ issues what they mean and why they matter

It is Sunday at 10:00 am, and the three founding members of the collective blog Zone9, Mahlet, Abel & Befeqadu are expected to be brought to Arada first instance court for their 5th day of proceedings in their ‘hearing’

From left to right: Abel, Mahlet and Befeqadu

From left to right: Abel, Mahlet and Befeqadu

From inciting violence using social media to working with foreign NGOs to activities related with terrorism are swiping accusations brought to Zone9 bloggers and journalists since the last week of April 2014. Zone9ers have spent the last 65 days without a meaningful ‘legal’ charge in pre-trial detention centre called Maekalwi located in the center of Addis Ababa.

The State coordinated violence on zone9 bloggers is not a single story of repression in Ethiopia but the harassment which targeted Zone9 bloggers have shocked many because they are a freethinking members of the small but vibrant Ethiopian online community. Their forced absence from their beloved expression platform-the Internet is noticeable particularly on this World Cup season on which they would have commented, joked, betted or criticized. They’re unlawfully apprehended. Here we outline the main ‘legal’ issues, what they mean and why they matter

Q: I just want to know why does Ethiopian government have taken so long to at least ‘properly’ indict the detained bloggers.

This is a very broad question which raises core issues about the genuinenity of the Ethiopian Justice System. Apparently, the government failed to invent ‘evidences’ which could support their accusations. That’s why, we say the bloggers arrest is political and the delayed procedure will even strengthen its political nature.

Q: What reasons have been given for the extended pre-trial procedures or hearing?

So far the investigators (the police) have been giving all sorts of excuses to put off the ‘trial’. They are all “the dog ate my homework” types of excuses. Just to mention few of them: “We have only a single not properly working computer since we are investigating Twitter & WordPress blog we need time”(seriously this is not a joke); “Since the bloggers committed the ‘crime’ with their associates we need to catch their associates ” “Their associates are trying to frighten us not to do out investigation”

Q: So what is this pre-trial procedure or hearing you are talking about?

It is procedure of keeping people in custody before the start of their trial. In common law tradition it is called remand. It is assumed remand prisoners are not guilty until proven otherwise but in Ethiopian justice system most of the time it is the inverse- you are guilty until proven otherwise.

Q: But how long should it take? Is there a time limit on this procedure?

Well it depends from country to country I heard an Ethiopian law expert saying it should not take more than four months.

Q: Are you saying the bloggers will get released if the investigators could not cook up kind of charge until this time cap?

No, I am just trying to refer to the Ethiopian law. We all know that these are fake procedures

Officials have already determined the guilt of the bloggers and journalists. These procedures have their only goal to present the accusation to the public as an impressive example and as a warning to other would-be bloggers. That is the reason why the government is always talking about the collaborators of the bloggers. The intention is to make this procedure to be retributive rather than a proper hearing building up into trial and also conducted for propagandistic purposes.

Partial view of Maekelawi detention center (rear  gate)

Partial view of Maekelawi detention center (rear gate)

Families and friends who need to visit their loved ones have to wait until 9:00 am in a rear gate. Then they will be asked to leave after a while. In a country where citizens have a limited chance  of visiting inmates these kinds of chances are like oasis and people will stay until the end‏.