Category Archives: The Case

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.

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Full Translation of Zone9ers Charge Sheet

Disclaimer

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.

Contextual translation of the charges of the Zone9 bloggers

Prelude on EPRDFization of terrorism charges

Before I give a brief contextual translation of the charges of the Zone9 bloggers it is important to highlight the EPRDF-ization of terrorism charges and later trials of the bloggers to paint a broader picture of why Ethiopian government have indicted more than 15 journalists and bloggers with terrorism charges  in the last three years alone. The Amharic 19 pages of charge sheets is available here.

The terrorism trials instigated by Ethiopian government led to the exile of many journalists including those who are described as the most balanced and mature ones. The Ethiopian government terrorism trials are generally seen as part of government’s approach to try to have a power on every dissenting voice of the country. This is what I call the EPRDFization of terrorism charges . The translated version of the charges will indisputably show how far the incompetent authorities of Ethiopia will go to squash an honest, candid and civic minded young bloggers who have had a trust on the Ethiopian Constitution. The bloggers have campaigned for the respect of the constitution.But Ethiopian authorities repress people in the name of fighting terrorism and protecting the constitution. What is more hurting is the government has related the bloggers with diaspora based political organizations on which the bloggers have leveraged significant amount of criticism. Sometimes the bloggers have been even more critical on these political organizations than the government itself. It is nauseating to be accused of irrelevant political organizations that have neither ideological nor material relationship with the bloggers. The absurdity of the charges does not even stop with this; the two political organizations Ginbot7 & OLF, which the bloggers have allegedly received assistance have immense ideological hostilities.

Hence, the translation of the charges and the usage of legal parlance in the process is not to rationalize the trial of the bloggers. Absolutely not, but it is to show the contemptible nature of the Ethiopian justice system and useless Ethiopian authorities. I strongly believe that the injustice of the Zone9 bloggers and their ally journalists is just a tip of the iceberg.

Note on the translation of the charges

Now to the contextual translation of the charges but ahead of that a note on the translation. Seven out of nine members of the blogging collective and three journalists were all charged with the specified violations stated under Ethiopian laws stated below. The Amharic phrasing of the crimes is repetitive and tedious which makes it difficult to translate the charges in to English in the most sensible manner for someone who is not familiar with Ethiopian legal system. The translator strongly believes that the verbosity of the charges is an apparent suggestion for the sham nature of the trial. Hence, I will only translate specific allegations which are germane to advocacy efforts of exonerating the innocent civic minded bloggers and journalists. All the names of the bloggers and the journalists with their role in the  alleged transgression are listed in the charge sheet.

Charge One

  1. Violation of Article 32 sub-articles 1 & 2 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  2. Violation of Article 38 sub-articles 1 & 2 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  3. Violation of Article 4 of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

If you need to read on the above particular articles which the government have accused  the bloggers  to have violated. You can read here and here.

Specifications 1

Since May 2012 the group purposely organized themselves clandestinely to participate in criminal activities. The group has divided themselves into three division of work as research, advocacy and foreign relation. All of them have sought and received support (financial, strategic & ideological) from two forbidden terrorist organizations called Ginbot 7/May 15 and OLF (Oromo Liberation Front). Beside, creating an encrypted line of communications with ESAT, which is the charge sheet claimed to be the mouthpiece of Ginbot 7 the bloggers and the journalists have reported their activities to ESAT (Diaspora based Radio & Television Organization)

Specification 2

In the process of their criminal activities which were impeded as soon as their capture on 25th and 26th of April 2014 the bloggers and the journalists have participated on various trainings. They have traveled out of the country on various occasions to partake in these trainings. They have also organized the trainings in the country. In the trainings the suspects have learned how to encrypt their online communications from a software package called ‘Security in a Box’

If you want to know more on what ‘Security in a Box’  is please click here

Charge Two

  1.  Violation of Article 27 sub-articles 1 & 2 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  2. Violation of Article 32 sub-articles 1 & 2 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  3. Violation of Article 38 sub-articles 1 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  4. Violation of Article 238 sub-articles 1 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

While the media have widely reported the charges in light of the controversial anti-terrorism proclamation of the 2009 the bloggers and journalists have faced even grim charges such as outrages against the constitution or the constitutional order as it is stipulated in the Article 238 sub-articles 1 of the 2004 criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Again if you need to read the articles the government claimed to have been violated by the bloggers. Read them here.

Specification:

From the day of their establishment in May 2012 until they were caught in April 2014 the group has intentionally organized themselves to overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy. They have received trainings from banned political organizations to carry out the crimes stipulated on charge two. All the journalists and bloggers are indicted with

Evidence

The prosecutor presented various evidence in support of their allegations. In the charge sheets the prosecutors claimed that they have both human and material evidence to support their allegations. But the prosecutor have not listed the names of the human evidences also know as witnesses. It is claimed that for the sake of witnesses protection as predetermined by Ethiopian law the prosecutors are not required to present a list of the people who will testify against the bloggers and journalists.

  1. The confessions which are made by the bloggers and journalists are attached by the prosecutor as a proof of their crime
  2. Manuscript, digital documents and physical evidence

From the charges sheets most of them are articles which the bloggers have written in span of two years, which are available on this blog. But some of the evidences the prosecutors claimed will support their allegations are the following:

  1. The political programs of Ginbot 7 and OLF
  2. A reflection article based on Wael Ghonim’s book of ‘Revolution 2.0
  3. Security in a Box: Tools & Tactics in Digital Security
  4. Stop Censorship: An Online Campaign Plan
  5. Email exchanges between members of the Zone9 blogging collectives
  6. Travel itineraries of the bloggers and passports
  7. Articles about issues on Ethio-Telecom and its functions
  8. Defamatory articles on Ethiopian government, constitution and government authorities
  9. Documents located on USB drives of the bloggers
  10. List of interviewees for documentary made on Ethiopia’s Freedom of Expression
  11. A Domain name called www.korojo.com
  12. Documents on how to have secure pass phrases and message encryption
  13. The physical movements of the bloggers and journalists, their meeting points from surveillance results
  14. Files which indicate the money they have received from different organizations
  15. Written articles of different sizes
  16. Laptops
  17. Hard disc drives
  18. USB drives
  19. SIM Cards
  20. Smart phones
  21. CDs

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

Reaction

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

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.