Addis Ababa (AFP) - A group of Ethiopian bloggers and journalists detained for nearly three months have been charged with terrorism for having links to an outlawed group and for planning attacks, a judge said Friday.
The seven members of the blogging collective Zone Nine and three journalists were arrested in April, prompting an outcry from rights groups who said the case was an assault on press freedom.
The group is accused of planning attacks in Ethiopia and working in collusion with the US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, labelled by Ethiopian authorities as a terrorist organisation.
"They took training in how to make explosives and planned to train others," Judge Tareke Alemayehu told the court.
The Zone Nine website, proclaiming "we blog because we care," features mostly social and political commentary, often critical of the government.
The judge said their work was a cover for "clandestine" activities and accused them of plotting "to destabilise the nation".
Nine of the accused -- one is charged in absentia -- smiled and waved to friends and family as they entered the packed courtroom.
The lawyer for eight of the suspects dismissed the charges.
"We don't believe that there is any credible substance," Amaha Mekonnen told AFP.
- Not 'going to escape' -
The Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn delivered a stark warning Friday to anyone linked to terrorist groups hours after the charges were laid.
"Anyone who is seen and acting within this terrorist network... will be eligible for the course of law," Hailemariam told reporters.
“When you put yourself into this network and you try to become a blogger, don’t think that you are going to escape from the Ethiopian government,” he added.
But the United States voiced concern about the decision to press charges and warned against "using anti-terrorism laws as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also called on the Ethiopian government "to ensure that the trial is fair, transparent and in compliance with Ethiopia's constitutional guarantees and international human rights obligations."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed 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 told AFP.
Meanwhile, Hailemariam defended the controversial extradition of Ginbot 7 leader Andargachew Tsige, arrested last month while transiting through Yemen's Sanaa airport.
"It's legal and it is legitimate... this guy has been sentenced sometime before he was captured so I think we will continue on according to the sentence that has been given," he said, but did not confirm the death sentence would be carried out.
According to Ethiopian law, the president determines whether the death sentence will be carried out, not the prime minister.
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 sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2012. They were pardoned after serving 15 months.
The dissident blogger Eskinder Nega is currently serving an 18-year sentence for having links with Ginbot 7, which calls for the violent overthrow of the ruling party.
The trial for the bloggers and journalists is expected to resume on August 4.