For Zone 9 Bloggers, the news came so unexpectedly that no one believed it at first. It was common for the prison loudspeakers to broadcast the names of those who were meant to be released that day.

But the defendants in the “Zone 9″ case, the most controversial ongoing trial in Ethiopia, never expected those names to be theirs. In April of last year, the seven men and two women were arrested in their homes. Some had worked as professional journalists, and most were contributors to a blog called Zone 9, which criticised the government’s human rights record.

Those arrested, along with a tenth defendant who was out of the country, were charged under Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism proclamation. The prosecutors alleged that the ten had been working with Ginbot 7, a designated terrorist organization. “They were arrested on suspicion of being involved in clandestine terrorist activity,” said government spokesman Shimeles Kemal. “The prosecution initiated the criminal charge against them.” But human rights advocates in Ethiopia and around the world have called the trial a farce and accused the government of trying to stifle dissent.

On July 8 and 9, after more than a year of daily headcounts, cramped quarters, brief family visits and endless court dates, five of the nine in prison – Edom Kassaye, Zelalem Kibret, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Tesfalem Waldeyes and Mahlet Fantahun – suddenly became free men and women. Reeyot Alemu, another journalist who had been in jail under similar charges since June 2011, was also freed on July 9.

Of all African countries, however, Ethiopia remains second only to in Eritrea in the number of journalists imprisoned, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Monday marked the first court date since last week’s unexpected release. Some of those freed went down to the Lideta courthouse in the capital, Addis Ababa, to show solidarity with the four left behind – Abel Wabela, Natnael Feleke, Befekadu Hailu and Atnafu Berhane.

The judges were meant to decide whether they accepted the charges, but, as in so many hearings past, the proceedings were hamstrung by administrative issues. A necessary transcript was missing, and the court adjourned for another ten days.

Milling around near the “lion’s cages,” a nickname the prisoners used for the buses that transported them from the jail to the courthouse, the freed journalists said they felt happy – and astounded – to be released, though they are disappointed that some of their friends remained behind bars. Still wary of the government, they are cautious about speaking out for fear of endangering themselves or the four still imprisoned.

The suddenness of the prisoners’ release has raised questions, with some speculating that it was tied to the upcoming arrival of Barack Obama, who will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country later this month.

But Shimeles insists the decision was not a political one. “The prosecution has withdrawn its charge against the five defendants,” he said. “This has nothing to do with Obama’s visit. It is a normal practice which the prosecutor can do in any case.”

Soleyana Shimeles Gebremicheal, the Zone 9 blogger who was abroad at the time of the arrests, remains charged in absentia but has become a staunch supporter of and advocate for her imprisoned colleagues from her base in the United States.

“Though freedom of expression has been a target of the government for long, the crackdown intensified in the last couple of years,” she said. “It seems like the government cannot control the media as they wanted it to be.”

Source: The Citizen

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