Four Ethiopian bloggers were acquitted of terrorism charges after 18 months in jail, a case widely condemned by rights groups as an assault on press freedom.
The bloggers were accused of planning attacks and collaborating with US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, labelled a terrorist organisation by Ethiopian authorities.
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“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 Amha Mekonnen said on Friday after the court ruling.
“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,” Mekonnen said.
Three of the jailed – Atnaf Berhane, Abel Wabella and Natnail Feleke – were said to be freed from custody on Friday.
But another journalist, Befekadu Hailu, while being acquitted of terrorism charges, remained in custody on charges of inciting violence, a crime that carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
A fifth blogger, Soleyana Gebremichael, is in exile, 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.
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.” Waldyes said.
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” at the news.
“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.”