Members of the Zone 9 blogging collective in December, 2012

Members of the Zone 9 blogging collective in December, 2012

Credit:

Endalk Chala/Wikipedia

Ethiopia's Zone 9 bloggers were acquitted by an Addis Ababa court today after four of them spent 18 months in prison, awaiting trial on charges of terrorism and inciting violence.

They have yet to walk free from Kilinto Prison, but their families say at least three of the bloggers will be released by Monday, if not sooner. One blogger, Soleyana Gebremichael, who lives abroad and was charged in absentia, was also acquitted by the court.

The five bloggers had all contributed to Zone 9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability.

One member of the group, Befeqadu Hailu has not been cleared of a remaining charge of provoking violence, but reports say it is a minor charge. As Befeqadu has been in prison since April 25, 2014, sources close to him assume that the penalty will be moot.

A stark example of Ethiopia's broken justice system and total disregard for freedom of expression, the Zone 9 case united Ethiopians on social media under the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, which has remained a force on Twitter since the day of the arrest.

Today the hashtag lit up with expressions of joy and vindication.

Six members of the Zone 9 collective, along with three journalist contacts, were arrested and taken from their homes on April 25 and 26, 2014, and detained for 11 weeks before authorities charged them under Ethiopia's infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which has been used to imprison several prominent journalists and bloggers who have written critically about the government and ruling party.

Five members of the original group were absolved of all charges and released on July 8, 2015. The fate of the remaining four — Befeqadu, Natnael, Atnaf and Abel — remained unknown until today. During the course of their imprisonment, the bloggers appeared before a judge over 30 times, only to be turned away by prosecutors’ requests for “more time” to investigate the case. Several members of the group underwent physical torture, including Global Voices translator Abel Wabela, who friends say has been left hearing impaired as a result of corporal punishment.

Many supporters on Twitter were quick to emphasize the degree to which the case exposed Ethiopia's failed judicial system.

Some put words like “acquittal,” “court” and “judiciary” in quotation marks.

Others asked if the government will take responsibility for the damage it caused to the bloggers and their families:

The question of what will happen to other Eithiopan citizens imprisoned for writing or speaking critically about the government, like Zelalem Workagenegu, a blogger who was jailed after applying to participate in a social media and digital tools training, seems more pressing than ever.

As many supporters pointed out, the “acquittal” does not mean that Ethiopia has any plans to change its ways.

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