A group of bloggers and journalists have been accused of plotting ‘to destabilise the nation’ for having ties with the outlawed Ginbot 7 group
A court in the capital, Addis Ababa has charged 10 Ethiopian journalists and bloggers belonging to the social media activist group Zone 9 with terrorism. They have been held in detention since April, and all deny receiving financial aid and instructions from terrorist groups to destabilise the country.
Nine of the accused – one is charged in absentia – smiled and waved to friends and family as they entered the packed courtroom.
The judge said the group’s work was a cover for clandestine activities and accused it of plotting “to destabilise the nation”.
“They took training in how to make explosives and planned to train others,” the AFP news agency quoted Judge Tareke Alemayehu as saying.
The bloggers are accused of working in collusion with the banned US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, which calls for the violent overthrow of the ruling party in Ethiopia.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the government was trying to stifle opposition and media freedom in the country, and called on the authorities for the group’s immediate release, saying they had been doing their jobs.
Correspondents say Ethiopia has increasingly faced criticism from donors and human rights groups for jailing its critics – many of whom have sought asylum abroad in fear of being arrested and tortured in jail.
“Expressing critical views is not a terrorist act. Once again, the Ethiopian government is misusing anti-terrorism legislation to suppress political dissent and intimidate journalists,” Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa representative, said in a statement.
The lawyer for some of the accused said the charges had no “credible substance”.
Zone 9’s website, which often has pieces that are critical of the government, has the strap line “we blog, because we care”.
In June, one of the leaders of Ginbot 7 facing the death penalty was controversially extradited from Yemen to Ethiopia. Andargachew Tsege was sentenced to death in absentia in 2009 for plotting a coup.
In an interview with the BBC, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn denied that the authorities were being heavy handed in applying anti-terror laws which came into force five years ago. He warned that those found to be linked to “terrorist groups” would be dealt with. “If you have any connection with terrorists don’t think that the Ethiopian government will let you [go] free”, he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the decision, accusing Ethiopia of making a “mockery of its own judicial system”, according to deputy Africa director, Leslie Lefkow.
“Hiding behind an abusive anti-terrorism law to prosecute bloggers and journalists for doing their jobs is an affront to the Ethiopian constitution,” she said.
HRW accuses Ethiopia of using the anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics. Several journalists have been jailed under the law, including two Swedish journalists jailed for 11 years in 2012. They were pardoned after serving 15 months. Two years ago, prominent Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in jail for having links with Ginbot 7.
The trial for the bloggers and journalists is expected to resume on August 4th.