After more than a year of imprisonment, two Ethiopian women had no idea they were about to be released until a prison loudspeaker informed them they were free to go.
“They were kind of stunned. Can you imagine what kind of emotion? They didn’t believe it at first – they thought they were being taken somewhere else,” said a friend of Edom Kassaye, the freelance journalist who was released from Kality jail on Thursday morning along with another detainee, the Zone 9 blogger Mahlet Fantahun.
Their release followed that of three others from the Zone 9 case on Wednesday after prosecutors dropped terrorism-related charges against five of the 10 suspects. The trial has attracted widespread condemnation, with human-rights advocates and western governments arguing the writers were persecuted solely for criticising an intolerant government.
“The government should show this is only a first step toward releasing all political prisoners and opening up space for Ethiopians to voice dissent on a range of issues,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, adding that the suspects “shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place”.
Many Ethiopian Facebook users believe the sudden concession is related to this month’s visit of President Barack Obama, the first to Africa’s second most populous country by a sitting US leader. While the US values its relationship withEthiopia from a security perspective, praising the country’s development record, it also routinely criticises the government’s repression of civil rights.
“It is funny how dictators are more accountable to Americans than to their own people and constitution,” wrote Kassahun Addis, an exiled journalist, in a Facebook post. “This looks like a pre-emptive charm offensive by the US and Ethiopian governments.”
The charges alleged the group of critical bloggers and journalists had been plotting against the government with foreign organisations.
Redwan Hussien, a government spokesman, put the releases down to “magnanimity” – an official recognition that the five writers released were only accomplices to the conspiracy. The trial against the rest would continue, he said.
But Ameha Mekonnen, a defence lawyer for the suspects, countered on Thursday: “All were charged as principle offenders. There’s no distinction among them.”
The pardoning of convicts occurs regularly in Ethiopia. Two Swedish journalists were shown clemency in 2012 after being jailed for supporting a rebel group in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia with which they became embedded.
Birtukan Mideksa, meanwhile, the opposition leader who – in a case that attracted widespread condemnation – was twice jailed by the government, was alsopardoned eventually.
Over the course of court proceedings that have so far lasted more than a year, the state has failed to present any evidence of terrorism-related activity on the part of the bloggers and journalists. The prosecution case amounted to calling witnesses who had observed police making raids and confiscating evidence, such as laptops, in April 2014.
“There was no witness who was there to say, ‘I saw this or that person being involved in this or that crime,’” said Ameha.
Judges will decide at the next hearing, on 20 July – a week before Obama’s visit – whether the remaining suspects have to defend themselves or are acquitted, Ameha said.
The idea that dropping the charges was politically calculated in advance of Obama’s visit was strengthened by the release on Thursday of another journalist, Reeyot Alemu. She headed home after serving around four years of a sentence that was reduce to five years from 14 on appeal in Aug. 2012.
Reeyot had been imprisoned for plotting against the government after working with the US-based opposition website Ethiopian Review and writing articles critical of the government in local newspapers.
Redwan said it is standard practice to release prisoners early. But an an acquaintance of the jailed journalists and bloggers, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested Reeyot had been told she would serve her full sentence after refusing to apologise for crimes she denied committing.
Another factor in the decisions may have been that Ethiopia is hosting a critical UN financing for development conference next week. Global leaders will gather in Addis Ababa to try and agree on how to finance the ambitious sustainable development goals, which will set the international development agenda for the next 15 years.
Ethiopian officials will be eager to deflect attention away from the jailed bloggers and towards the country’s record of economic growth and poverty reduction. The government will hope that donors who already deem Ethiopia worthy of development assistance will support a plan for carbon-neutral industrialisation by 2030.