Three court hearings for six detained bloggers & three independent journalists took place on 17-18 May 2014 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During the first two hearings, the court adjourned trials of three of the detained bloggers- Atnaf Berhane, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret as well as three journalists Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Waldyes and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis for 28 days to 14 June, 2014. During the third hearing for the three remaining bloggers; Befeqadu Hailu, Mahlet Fantahun & Abel Wabella an adjournment for 14 days to 1 June, 2014 was granted by the court.
No formal charges were pressed against the detained bloggers and journalists in any of the court hearings. Police requested for an adjournment of 28 days following submissions to the court on the severity of the charges being investigated allegedly under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP). Provisions of the ATP give latitude to investigating officers to request for 28 days adjournment in trials in order to facilitate further investigations prior to terrorism charges being proffered against accused persons. The ATP has come under harsh criticism for sweeping provisions on terrorism and the low threshold of evidence required in conviction of terror suspects.
The Judge in the first two hearings ruled in favor of the request for adjournment due to evidence provided by the police that supported allegations of terrorism under the ATP. The second Judge in the third hearing however alluded to the insufficiency of evidence that supported terrorism charges and consequently adjourned the trial by 14 days. Although the indictment from the initial hearings in early May following the arrest of the bloggers & journalists was based on their alleged association with foreign human rights entities as well as use of social media to destabilize the country, the latest hearings point to a shift to terrorism related charges. While the previous hearings were held in closed court, the latest hearings were open for attendance by close family members of the detainees.
One of the Zone 9 members Atnaf Berhane made a formal complaint of torture by the police during the May 17 hearing. Similarly, in the previous hearing, Befeqadu Hailu and Abel Wabella complained of having been subjected to torture by the police during interrogation. The detainees were held incommunicado for a prolonged period following their arrest in late April with access to legal presentation not being availed until 14 May, 2014. The defense lawyer Amaha Mekonnen raised the issue of denial of legal access and the court upheld that holding the detainees incommunicado was an illegality. The court however declined an application for bail and ruled in favor of the police who opposed bail on grounds that investigations were still in progress as this was geared towards compilation of relevant material to be produced as evidence and identification witnesses to support the charges in subsequent hearings.
- The detainees’ right to a fair trial should be upheld by the court in the ongoing proceedings.
- Should insufficient evidence be found to support terrorism charges, the detainees should be granted bail forthwith.
- The police should comply with the court order allowing the detainees unfettered access to legal counsel in order to guarantee their constitutional right to legal representation.