The young members of the Ethiopian activist group Zone 9 were arrested and jailed because they blogged about human rights. This is the story of 544 days that should never have happened.
April 25, 2014.
It has been a couple of weeks since I started my advocacy for human rights. The book 438 Days, written by two Swedish journalists who were jailed in Ethiopia, had opened my eyes to the suffering that human rights activists and journalists are going through. Eager to know more, I had begun looking for ways of learning more about human rights issues. It turned out that Twitter -thanks to activists sharing news coming from all over the world – offered a good way of increasing my knowledge.
As I scrolled through the tweets, a few words written by an Ethiopian human rights activist captured my attention, and they immediately sent shivers down my spine.
— endalk2006 (@endalk2006) 25 april 2014
It turned out that this tweet was one of the very first of thousands that were going to be written about the Zone 9 Bloggers, whose case would come to engage people all over the world.
A Need for a Public Voice
Ethiopia is located in the eastern part of Africa, more precisely, in the Horn of Africa. Many of the basic human rights such as freedom of religion, assembly and freedom of association are repetitively violated in the country. A human right that is often violated is the right to freedom of the press and expression. Out of 180 countries, Ethiopia currently ranks 142th on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index and has the second highest number of exiled journalists in the world. During 2014 six publications closed down, around 30 journalists fled the country, and 22 journalists, publishers and bloggers were criminally charged.
The government and ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is known to repeatedly sentence and jail journalists, bloggers and political opposition members under the Anti-Terrorism proclamation. According to an interview with journalist Bill Thompson, the EPRDF does face a real threat of terrorism – but the government use this threat as an opportunity to suppress free and democratic debate and discussion, and puts a terrorist label to any kind of opposition.
The jailings of human rights activists and journalists is turning Ethiopia into a giant prison. According to an interview with Jomanex Kasaye, founding member of the Zone 9 Bloggers, citizens cannot speak freely or criticize the government, because they know that they are in danger of imprisonment. This lack of a political discourse and independent media showed just how much the country was in need of a public voice. The thought of this made nine friends come together in a blogging group with the motto “we blog because we care”. The bloggers started calling themselves Zone 9 which is a reference to the zones of the notorious Kality prison where political prisoners and journalists are held. The prison is divided into eight zones, but with an imaginary ninth ‘zone’ which is a reference to Ethiopia itself: the constant threat of being arrested makes the whole country feel like a prison.
Through blogging and social media, the group began spreading awareness about the terrible human rights situation in Ethiopia. Zone 9 wanted people to demand that their rights and the constitution should be respected. They wanted people to know that they have a voice and that they can speak up. According to the mentioned interview with Jomanex, Zone 9 held online campaigns which mainly focused on respecting the constitution. Even though the country’s constitution protects various kinds of human rights, the government does not respect its own constitution.
The arrests and killings which followed the 2005 political election had led to a banning of demonstrations, and Zone 9 demanded that the right to demonstrate should be respected. In a campaign called The Ethiopian Dream, the group demanded that people should be treated equally – no matter what their ethical group or background may be. According to a video about Zone 9, the blogging group also held campaigns regarding putting a stop to the censorship. They visited jailed journalists and political prisoners in the hopes of shedding light on their situation. Zone 9 also collaborated with human rights organizations and asked local journalists to report and document any oppression they were facing in their work.
Zone 9’s activities were constitutional, but nevertheless turned out to be risky. According to Freedom House, EPRDF is maintaining strict control over citizens internet activities. The government imposes politically motivated internet filtering and blocks websites and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Leaked company e-mails to and from the Italian spyware firm Hacking Team, have revealed that Ethiopian intelligence agents were trained to hack into computers – trainings that directly contributed to human rights violations.
According to an interview with founding member Endalkachew Chala, Zone 9 was perceived as a threat as soon as the members started blogging together. Zone 9 soon realized that the Ethiopian government did not approve of their activities. The group was threatened and instructed to cease their activism as their activities were thought to encourage critical thinking amongst civilians. They began facing harassments and surveillance. In the interview, Endalkachew shares that people began following and threatening him. His phone was tapped and he was asked to stop what he was doing. Jomanex received a call from someone who demanded that he stop talking about human rights issues. The monitoring by the government intensified, and eventually the group was forced to go dormant.
Jailed For Blogging
For seven months the group did not continue their activities, but with the knowledge that what they were doing was not only necessary, but also their constitutional right, they decided to start their blogging again. Two days later, their renewed online activities came to an abrupt end. Six of the bloggers, Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berhane, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke and Zelalem Kibret were arrested in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on April 25th, 2014. Two other bloggers, Soleyana Shimeles Gebremichael and Endalkachew were abroad and were not arrested. Jomanex was in another city and managed to leave the country. However, the arrests were not over. The day after this, three journalists and friends of the bloggers, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis and Edom Kassaye, were arrested too.
The bloggers and journalists were taken to the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, called Maekelawi. Detainees are held there before being transferred to prison. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Maekelawi is a place known for its poor detention conditions, unlawful interrogation tactics, and torture. Detainees are being tortured by investigators in order to extract confessions – whether they are accurate or not. Maekelawi is a highly infamous place – or as Befeqadu Hailu, one of the bloggers, later wrote in a letter: “The very idea of setting a foot in the compound of the ill-famed Maekelawi detention center gives a cold shiver to anyone.”
During the time that the bloggers and journalists were kept in Maekelawi, they lived in horrifying conditions, even undergoing extreme torture. According to Ethiopian Human Rights Project (EHRP), they went through hours of physical exercise, were beaten, kicked and slapped countless times, were forced to prolonged handcuffing, and faced insults and mocking. The bloggers and journalists were forced to sign false and prepared confession papers. Abel Wabela, refused to sign the confession for three months, during which he endured extreme torture. He was forced to lay on the floor whilst interrogators stomped on his face, neck and back. He was beaten by a person using a stick, and whipped by someone using a computer cable.
After three months of imprisonment in Maekelawi, Zone 9 and the journalists were transferred to prison. The men were jailed in Kilinto Prison, and the women in Kality Prison – the very same prison that the bloggers had named their group after. Reeyot Alemu, a journalist and former detainee, wrote in a letter that “Kality is not only an unpleasantness to the body – but also to the soul.” The prison is known for its poor conditions. According to the book 438 Days, the zones can be extremely over crowded with hundreds of people. There is a general lack of food and many of the prisoners have to sleep directly on the concrete floor. Beatings and torture by prison guards are common.
Charged With Terrorism
According to a BBC Click interview with Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) East Africa representative Tom Rhodes, the six bloggers and three journalists were charged with terrorism, inciting the public to violence, and for having links to the organizations Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Blogger Soleyana Shimeles was charged while absent. According to Eastern Africa Director Henry Maina for Article 19, these organizations are banned as terrorist networks. The detainees, however, had never had any association with them. In actual fact they had even criticized these organizations publicly.
Furthermore, Maina states that they also stand accused of organizing digital security training using the open source software Security in a Box, which is commonly used by journalists and human rights defenders to protect their anonymity. According to CPJ, they were furthermore accused of working with foreign human rights organizations and for organizing to destabilize the country.
“[the pre-trial procedure] is the procedure of keeping people in custody before the start of their trial. In common law tradition it is called remand. It is assumed remand prisoners are not guilty until proven otherwise, but in Ethiopian justice system most of the time it is the inverse – you are guilty until proven otherwise.”
The detainees appeared before the court over 40 times, each time with an adjournment. In most cases the bloggers spent only a few minutes in the court room, before it was adjourned again. The judges were often late or worked on other cases while the bloggers had to wait. It was usually close to impossible for friends and families of the bloggers to attend the trials, due to lack of space inside the room. During the trials, there were strict control of cell phone usage by security agents. Security people were rough towards attendees, and at least three individuals who attempted to take pictures during trials using their cell phones had been arrested briefly and asked to delete the pictures.
Witnesses have attended the trials, but only testified that they had seen articles being printed from the laptops belonging to the defendants. These articles are texts that the bloggers and journalists already had published online, and the defendants did not deny that the articles belonged to them. According to Trial Tracker Blog, the witnesses have also had serious trouble differing between the defendants:
” Some of the witnesses had taken part in the search of the homes of the detainees. It was however reported that the witnesses had trouble knowing who was who of the detainees. One of them asked “which one of them is Asmamaw (Hailegiorgis)?” The witness then pointed at Abel Wabela. When another witness was about to testify, she mentioned the name of a person that had nothing to do with the case, but pointed at one of the bloggers. Then, another witness mixed up a blogger with another person who also had nothing to do with the case.”
During the trials the bloggers have reported about being subjected to abuse in prison. At one point, prison officials had forgot to handcuff Abel Wabela in the bus heading from court to prison. For this, Abel was punished. The guards mistreated and yelled at him. He was tied up with dog chains for a whole day and night and his hearing aid, which was a result of his torture in Maekelawi, was taken from him.
An Unexpected Turn
In the summer of 2015, the case of the Zone 9 bloggers and the journalists took an unexpected turn. Two of the bloggers, Zelalem and Mahlet, and the three journalists, were suddenly released July 8, 2015 and their charges were dropped. Journalist Reeyot Alemu, who had been jailed in Kality Prison for four years, was released too. According to an interview with Endalkachew and Soleyana, the court’s official explanation was that the committed offences of the released were deemed to be less serious than the offences of the others – an explanation that is considered to be highly unlikely since all of the bloggers and journalists were charged with the same alleged crime.
With the official reason being unlikely, other possible explanations has emerged among human rights activists. It is thought that the releases could be a result of the pressure that has been put on Ethiopia to release the jailed. A lot of pressure has been placed on the government, coming from human rights activists, journalists, organizations, and especially from concerned Ethiopians. In July 2014, 41 organizations including Amnesty International, Article 19 Eastern Africa, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch all called for the release of the jailed. A very high number of articles, videos and radio-interviews have been made to highlight the case. Most importantly, the support has been visible on social media, with the trending hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers. Through this hashtag, voices from all over the world have demanded the bloggers to be released.
Another explanation is tied to President Barack Obamas historic visit to Ethiopia and the African Union headquarters located in Addis Ababa. The releases took place about one month before the visit. According to a Public Radio International (PRI) interview with Tom Rhodes, the government wanted to avoid difficult questions that would have been asked by the president.
Bloggers Abel, Natnael and Atnaf remained jailed until October 16, 2015. During the verdict, their charges were dropped and they were released from prison. Befeqadus charges were dropped too, but the charges of inciting violence were not acquitted. He remained in prison for four more days, and was released on bail. He is ordered to defend on December 7th. Soleyanas’ charges were also dropped.
The members of Zone 9, and the journalists, are now free. However, it is not to be forgotten that when the last four bloggers were released, they had spent 544 days in prison without committing a crime. During this time, the jailed as well as their families and friends lived through an enormous pain – pain that no one should have to face. Ethiopia has not changed. Other journalists, such as Temesgen Desalegn, Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and blogger Zelalem Workagegnehu remain in jail, together with political prisoners and other voices of dissent. Human rights activists, journalists, organizations, friends and families, as well as other concerned people, will continue the fight for their release.