Ethiopia 'Zone 9' bloggers acquitted of terrorism

Addis Ababa (AFP) - Four Ethiopian bloggers and journalists were acquitted of terrorism Friday after 18 months in jail, a case widely condemned by rights groups as an assault on press freedom.

"They shouldn't have stayed in prison for so long -- 539 days -- in fact they shouldn't have been prosecuted in the first place," defence lawyer Ameha Mekonnen said after the court ruling.

The bloggers were accused of planning attacks and collaborating with US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, labelled a terrorist organisation by Ethiopian authorities.

"The court said all the evidence presented was very weak to prove they were planning any kind of terrorism -- the court connected their writings to freedom of expression," Ameha said.

Three of the jailed -- Atnaf Berhane, Abel Wabella and Natnail Feleke -- were expected to be freed from custody later Friday.

But another journalist, Befekadu Hailu, while being acquitted of terrorism charges, remains in custody on charges of inciting violence, a crime that carries a sentence of up to three years.

A fifth, Soleyana Gebremichael, is in exile in the US, and was acquitted of all charges in absentia.

Six bloggers from the Zone 9 website were arrested in April 2014 and charged with terrorism for having links to an outlawed group and for planning attacks.

- 'Needless waste of their lives' -

Two were released in July 2015 after charges were dropped, alongside three other journalists.

The courtroom was crowded with friends and family, with many crying as charges were dropped.

"I have a bittersweet feeling - they spent a year and six months in prison for doing nothing, we spent a year and three months for nothing," said journalist Tesfalem Waldyes, who was released from prison in July, but came back to court to hear the verdict on Friday.

"On charges of terrorism? This absurd, this whole thing is absurd."

Rights groups have criticised Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation for being vaguely worded and used to stifle peaceful dissent.

Tom Rhodes from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which lists Ethiopia as the "second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa", said he was "jubilant".

"This is long, long overdue since the prosecution clearly had no evidence against them," Rhodes said.

"I hope this may be a sign that the government may ease off on the other cases still ongoing."

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranks Ethiopia 142 out of 180 on its press freedom index, repeatedly called for their release "because they committed no crime."

Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the acquittals were "fantastic news" but condemned the detention as "an awful, needless waste of their lives and Ethiopian resources."

Ethiopia is an ally of the West in the fight against Islamist extremism in East Africa, receiving millions of dollars in foreign aid, but has a dire record when it comes to human rights and press freedom.

The name Zone 9 was a reference to Ethiopia's infamous Kaliti prison, which has eight wings, with bloggers suggesting the ninth zone was the rest of the country.

The website, with the slogan "we blog because we care," features mostly social and political commentary, often critical of the government.

Tsedale Lemma, editor of the Addis Standard newspaper, said the case had had a "profoundly chilling effect" on the freedom, saying it was a "nightmare" to be a journalist in Ethiopia.

"Press freedom in Ethiopia in the last two years has gone from bad to worse," Tsedale said.

"We have seen unprecedented numbers of newspapers and magazines effectively put out of business, and a large number of journalists exiled."