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Zone 9 bloggers: Out of jail, but not free

The last Zone 9 member was released a few months after Obama's visit to Ethiopia, but the struggle continues for this free expression collective.

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In an interview with Sampsonia Way magazine, Soleyana Gebremichael, a co-founder of the Zone 9 blog who lives in exile, reflects on the work that she and her colleagues did prior to being charged:

You can't stop doing what you are doing because it is not a crime… What we were doing and what we were asking was within our constitutional rights.

The Zone 9 bloggers are a group of online activists dedicated to challenging corruption, upholding human rights and promoting government accountability in Ethiopia. They named their collective after the zones in Kality Prison, where many of Ethiopia's political prisoners are held. While Kality Prison is organized into eight different zones, the bloggers refer to the entirety of Ethiopia as "Zone 9" due to its lack of democratic freedoms, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In February 2014, the collective stopped blogging after security officials harassed and accused them of having links to political opposition parties and human rights groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

On 23 April 2014, Zone 9 announced on Facebook that they would start blogging again. On 25 and 26 April 2014, six of the bloggers - Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahum, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu - were arrested and jailed.

They spent nine weeks behind bars before finally being charged under Ethiopia's highly criticised 2009 anti-terrorism law, which free expression defenders such as PEN International have referred to as "draconian." The law had already been used to jail other journalists and government critics, among them columnist Eskinder Nega.

Specifically, the bloggers were accused of intending to "destabilise the nation," having connections to outlawed organisations, using digital encryption to communicate and planning to carry out terrorism.

Human Rights Watch has documented how the Ethiopian government monitors email and telephone communications, often using information unlawfully collected during interrogations. "The fact that bloggers used digital security isn't terrorism but common sense, especially in a repressive environment like Ethiopia," Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, stated in July 2014.

Blog co-founder Soleyana Gebremichael, who was out of the country when the arrests took place, was charged with terrorism in absentia.

Between April 2014 and September 2015, the bloggers' trial was adjourned 30 times. In a typical trial day, the bloggers spent less than 8 minutes in the courtroom without any substantial legal arguments, writes Zone 9 member Endalk in a piece for Global Voices.

In February 2015, Freedom House cited reports that blogger Abel Wabella was kept shackled overnight and had his hearing aid removed following a court appearance.

In April 2015, Human Rights Watch wrote that several of the bloggers had alleged that they had been mistreated in detention, although they noted that there had not been any meaningful investigation of the allegations.

On July 8, 2015, two of the bloggers, Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret, were released from prison and all charges were dropped against them. They were released alongside three other journalists: Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Edom Kassaye and Tesfalem Waldyes. There was no official explanation as to why, but many pointed to the fact that the releases occurred just weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama was to visit Ethiopia.

The following day, critical columnist Reeyot Alemu, who had spent 4 years in prison, and was featured in IFEX's 2012 International Day to End Impunity Campaign, was also released.

On 16 October 2015, the remaining Zone 9 bloggers were acquitted of terrorism charges. Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, and Natnail Feleke were released the following day. Exiled blogger Soleyana S. Gebremichael was acquitted in absentia, according to news reports cited by CPJ.

"The court said all the evidence presented was very weak to prove they were planning any kind of terrorism – the court connected their writings to freedom of expression," defence lawyer Ameha Mekonnen said after the court ruling, according to AFP.

Another blogger from the collective, Befekadu Hailu, was found guilty of "inciting violence" as a result of a confession made during his detention, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), but was released on bail on 21 October. EFF notes that he is unlikely to return to jail, given the time he has already served in prison.

Recently, EFF included the collective in their "Offline," campaign that "showcases key cases that may not be receiving wide coverage, but we believe speak to a wider audience concerned with online freedom."

In 2014, PEN International urged supporters to send appeals to Ethiopian authorities, calling for the bloggers' release and for the anti-terrorism legislation to be repealed.

The bloggers are recipients of CPJ's 2015 International Press Freedom Awards.

Last Updated: 16 October 2015

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