by Endalk Chala
Since they were first arrested and jailed on April 25, 2014, Ethiopia’s Zone9 bloggers have seen many twists and turns in their case. All told, they have appeared before the court 30 times in 15 months, and been adjourned each time. But with the release of five of the detainees last week, the case now has reached at a critical juncture.
Five Ethiopian writers (four in prison and one in absentia) are still on trial for terror-related crimes that the Ethiopian government claims were committed beginning in May 2012. On July 20, the Ethiopian High Court is expected to issue a verdict on the case.
Endalk Chala, a founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective and Global Voices contributor, answers six key questions on the minds of their supporters around the world.
What exactly have the writers been charged with?
Prosecutors say that the writers have engaged themselves in undercover enterprise with the intent to overthrow, modify or suspend the Ethiopian Federal State Constitution by violence, threats or conspiracy. Prosecutors have since further accused the writers of encrypting their communications and disseminating seditious writings with the intention of causing public strife or to overthrow, modify or suspend the Ethiopian Federal Constitutional State by violence, threats, or conspiracy. While the first charge asserts that the writers violated the country’s contentious anti-terrorism law, the latter is a violation of criminal code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Both charges are severe in terms penalties, though media coverage of the case has primarily focused on the terrorism charge.
Weren’t the writers released last week?
There are ten individuals charged, out of which only five individuals are released suddenly last week. The manner in which the writers were released is so mysterious that even their defense attorney heard the news of the release of his clients via radio. Critics say that the government is trying to save face by releasing a few individuals ahead of President Obama’s imminent visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
What exactly is a “bench” trial?
In Ethiopia’s legal system there is only a ‘bench’ trial, in which a judge or panel of judges, not a jury, determines if someone is guilty or innocent. Accordingly, the cases of Zone9 Bloggers have been overseen by a middle judge called Shelemew Bekele who chairs the panel of three judges. However, the Zone9 bloggers have repeatedly pointed out that the judge presiding over the case has changed at least four times since proceedings against them first began. After the bloggers protested his partiality to the prosecutors, Judge Shelemew promised to walk out from the case but he still is presiding the case.
What will be the fate of the bloggers?
Since five of the writers who are accused of similar of crimes were released, there is a hope that the Ethiopian court will exonerate the remaining five bloggers. In brief statements, the released writers said they are perplexed why their colleagues are left in prison but they are optimistic that their friends will soon join them in the free world.
What if the bloggers are found guilty?
For terrorism and incitement offenses, the mandatory sentence in Ethiopia is a minimum of eight years in prison. However, in the absence of any evidence to support the allegation, I hope the court will recognize that the bloggers are being tried solely for their work in relation with their human rights activism, including their articles critical of Ethiopian government policies, and will exonerate them.
What does this tell us about Ethiopia’s judicial system?
The case of Zone9Bloggers is unfortunately no anomaly in Ethiopia’s highly compromised judiciary system. It is the tip of an iceberg in which political corruption thrives and the judicial system is run by an elite and powerful minority.
Endalk Chala is a founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective who is currently pursuing at PhD at the University of Oregon in the US.