Ethiopian court lays fresh criminal charges against two Zone 9 bloggers
Ethiopian authorities continue to frustrate freedom of expression, often by using the legal system to target dissidents or independent journalists. Most recently, the courts upheld a prosecutor's appeal against the earlier acquittal of two members of the Zone 9 blogging collective, Natnael Feleke and Atnaf Berhane. The two will now face criminal charges related to the incitement of violence and demoralisation of the public through their writings. They face imprisonment of up to ten years. Commenting on the latest developments in the long-running case, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America said:
"The new charges against two Zone 9 bloggers are an absurd fabrication that demonstrate the Ethiopian court system’s reluctance to see reason in the face of political pressure. Writing a critical article, blog post, or tweet is a protected right and we urge that all charges be dropped and the original acquittals upheld”.
At the same time, the court upheld the acquittals of two more members of the collective, Soliana Shimelis and Abel Wabela. Members of the Zone 9 blogging collective, whose website sometimes publishes articles critical of the government, were arrested in 2014 and initially held for over 80 days without trial.
On 13 March 2017, the Ethiopian authorities released journalist Anania Sori, who had been detained since 18th November 2016 without officially being charged of any crime. However, Elias Gebru, a fellow journalist arrested at the same time as Sori, is still being held in detention on unclear charges.
On 3rd March 2017, prosecutors formally charged Dr. Merera Gudina, leader of the political party, Oromo Federalist Congress, with intent to “dismantle or disrupt social, economic and political activity for political, religious and ideological aim...under the guise of political party leadership”. Gudina was arrested in November 2016, after returning from Brussels where he had spoken about the situation in Ethiopia before the European Parliament. Upon arrest, he was accused of backing a terrorist group and disregarding the country's state of emergency directives.
On 10th March 2017, the Federal High Court denied Gudina bail and charged him under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, along with 76 other individuals arrested in connection with 2016 protests. According to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, most of the defendants are members of opposition parties.
On 15th March 2017, the Ethiopian authorities amended certain powers that had been expanded under the state of emergency directives, including the power to arbitrarily arrest people and conduct searches without warrants. The country's state of emergency was declared in October 2016 in response to widespread protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country and has since been ongoing. Though the amendment relaxes some of the restrictions, on 30th March the Ethiopian Parliament voted to extend the current state of emergency for an additional four months. Ethiopian citizens' rights are not fully protected and the government has used its expanded powers to curtail freedom of expression and the political opposition.