NEW YORK—The Ethiopian Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to open a criminal case against two Zone 9 bloggers formerly charged and acquitted of terrorism is a shameful setback in a long drawn-out freedom of expression battle, PEN America said today.

The Zone 9 bloggers, a collective of Ethiopian writers whose website produced social and political commentary often critical of the government, 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 were released in July 2015; another four, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Natnail Feleke, and Soleyana S. Gebremichael, were acquitted and released on October 16, 2015. A tenth Zone 9 blogger, Befekadu Hailu, was also acquitted of terrorism charges but still faces criminal charges. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the acquittal of Soleyana Gebremichael and Abel Wabela, but to replace terrorism charges with criminal charges of “inciting violence” for Atnaf Behane and Natnail Feleke.

“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,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “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.”

Ethiopia is a major ally of the United States in the fight against Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab in eastern Africa. The Ethiopian government has used the fight against extremism as justification to enact wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws. Ethiopia uses these laws to charge and jail writers who are political dissidents and civil society advocates like the Zone 9 bloggers and Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and writer who is a leading advocate for free expression and winner of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

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, including several other members of the Zone 9 collective; however, Ethiopia today remains one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.