The Ethiopian Supreme Court on April 6, 2017, levied criminal charges against two Zone 9 bloggers, Atnaf Berhane and Natnail Feleke, three years after they were first arrested in April 2014. They were later acquitted of terrorism charges and released in October 2015. A third blogger, Befekadu Hailu, is also awaiting trial on criminal charges after being acquitted of terrorism in March 2017. Atnaf, Natnail, and Befekadu belonged to a collective known as the Zone 9 bloggers, and were arrested along with seven other members of the group, all of whom have been acquitted.

CASE HISTORY

The Zone 9 bloggers are a collective of Ethiopian writers formed in May 2012 in a landscape of diminishing space for free expression in Ethiopia. Their blog was known to feature social and political commentary often critical of the government.

The bloggers were initially arrested in April 2014. They were charged under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism law for their connections with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and writings that were critical of the government. Five of the bloggers, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Zelalem Kiberet, Mahlet Fantahun, and Edom Kassaye were released in July 2015, while another four, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Natnail Feleke, and Soleyana S. Gebremichael, were acquitted and released on October 16, 2015. Another blogger, Befekadu Hailu, was acquitted of terrorism in March 2017, but now also faces criminal charges.

The Supreme Court decision comes after prosecutors filed an appeal against the 2015 acquittals of Soliana Shimelis, Abel Wabella, Atnafu Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, and Natnail Feleke. Although the court upheld all acquittals on terrorism charges, it replaced these with criminal charges for Atnaf, Natnail, and Befekadu. The criminal charges pertain to article 257 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting violence by word of mouth or through writing. The charges carry a sentence of up to ten years in prison.

The Zone 9 bloggers were held in prison in harsh conditions for 18 months, subject to a drawn-out legal process replete with dozens of hearings in their case. At the end of 2016, at least 16 journalists were in jail in Ethiopia for peacefully expressing themselves, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many were released in 2015, but Ethiopia remains one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.