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As Ethiopia's 'Zone 9' bloggers get popular, they get charged with terror

William DavisonThe Christian Science Monitor

Ethiopia has charged 10 reform-minded bloggers and journalists with terrorism offenses – marking the latest in a long line of repressive acts against civil society by a key US partner in the Horn of Africa.

Seven of the 10 bloggers are part of a social media group called Zone 9. The group are mostly young urban professionals known for a fresh and reasoned approach to peaceful change -- and who are increasingly well-respected – in an authoritarian nation known for a history of stifling free expression. With elections coming, some say the charges are an easy way for the government to link dissidents to terrorist groups and undermine them.

Six of the bloggers and the three journalists have been held since April, and are now charged under a 2009 terror law that has broad and loose terms. Analysts say these individuals may receive the same long prison sentences as opposition politicians and journalists recently sentenced on similar charges.

One Zone 9 blogger resides in the US and is being tried in absentia.

Government prosecutors say the bloggers are linked to a US-based Ethiopian opposition group called Ginbot 7 and were allegedly planning to overthrow the Ethiopian government. 

The US, a major donor to Ethiopia as well as a security partner, frequently criticizes Ethiopia’s human-rights record; yet no aid cuts or formal censure have followed.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the US is “deeply concerned” about the charges and urged a fair trial. "The arrest of journalists and bloggers, and their prosecution under terrorism laws, has a chilling effect on the media and all Ethiopians’ right to freedom of expression,” Ms. Psaki said after the charges were announced Friday. 

'Quiet' diplomacy

The West views Ethiopia as an important broker in ending a vicious civil war now underway in South Sudan. It is also a key ally in Somalia, where its military has for several years been fighting Al Qaeda-linked groups like Al Shabab, in that clan-riven nation.

Boston University Africa specialist Michael Woldemariam says Ethiopia's strategic significance means the US is “unlikely” to condition aid to what is Africa's second most populous nation. “I think quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is the most likely way forward in ensuring the outcome of the trial is not particularly egregious,” Mr. Woldemariam says.

In a press conference hours after the first hearing Friday, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was unrepentant. He said those charged were part of a terrorist network centered around Ethiopia’s arch-rival Eritrea. He alleged that the network extends to Somalia, Kenya, and South Sudan.

“Whatever you see can be put into this equation,” the prime minister said about the network. “Be it a doctor, or a teacher, or a journalist.” While Somalia and Kenya have seen numerous terrorist attacks in the past year, Ethiopia has not experienced any attacks at home.

The subject of Eritrea is sensitive in Addis Ababa. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year insurgency. Elites in the two nations fell out, leading to war from 1998 to 2000. Both sides have remained at loggerheads.

Ginbot 7, formed in exile by opposition figures, led a successful campaign against the ruling party in 2005 elections, which turned violent. (Security forces in Ethiopia killed hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoned opponents en masse.) That history led Ginbot 7 members to team up with Eritrea against the Ethiopian regime. 

Open criticism of terror

The Zone 9 bloggers charged with terror are regarded as diligent and bold critics of the Ethiopian government. Yet those familiar with the group seriously balk at the terror links claimed by prosecutors.

Zone 9 bloggers, for example, openly criticized Ginbot 7 for its belief that armed struggle is justified in order to remove a dictatorship, says Zone 9 co-founder Endalkachew Hailemichael, currently a graduate student at the University of Oregon. The Zone 9 social media activists believe the only way democracy can be achieved in Ethiopia is through peaceful opposition, Mr. Hailemichael says.

In Addis Ababa, observers say that with elections upcoming, the bloggers were too outspoken. Accusing them of links to Ginbot 7 ties them to Eritrea and also to Somalia’s Islamic extremists that the Eritrean regime is accused of funding.  

“This is part of a deliberate strategy by the government to marginalize its most dangerous critics in the run up to the 2015 elections,” says Woldemariam. “The existence of armed opposition, and Ginbot 7 links to Asmara, provide a useful bogeyman the government can invoke to tar and marginalize the real threat to its power: young activists that seek to operate non-violently within the system in an attempt to push political change.”