NEW YORK—PEN American Center welcomes the Ethiopian court's decision today to acquit four of the Zone 9 bloggers on terrorism charges. The acquittal is a positive move in a landmark case that captured the increasingly harsh measures taken by authorities to punish those who speak out against the government.
The Zone 9 bloggers is a collective of Ethiopian writers formed in May 2012 in a landscape of diminishing space for free expression. Their blog was known to feature social and political commentary often critical of the government. Members of the collective Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, and Natnail Feleke, in prison on trumped-up charges since April 2014, were acquitted of the terrorism charges and are set to be released today. A fourth Zone 9 Blogger, Soleyana S. Gebremichael, who is living in exile and whom PEN interviewed on the state of free expression in Ethiopia, was acquitted in absentia. A fifth Zone 9 blogger, Befekadu Hailu, was also acquitted of terrorism charges but remains in detention on charges of inciting violence. His bail hearing is set for next week.
“The acquittal—a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak environment for free expression in the country--proves that the Ethiopian court realized the absurd nature of the terrorism charges it had levelled against these young bloggers,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN. “Speaking your mind, tweeting an opinion, or writing a critical story are not crimes and we urge the court to drop unfounded charges against the remaining bloggers and journalists who are in jail as a result of their work.”
The Zone 9 bloggers have been 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 2014, at least 17 journalists—including 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awardee Eskinder Nega, arrested under the same anti-terrorism legislation in 2011—were in jail in Ethiopia for peacefully expressing themselves, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, although many have been released in 2015, including several other members of the Zone 9 collective.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. www.pen.org