Five Ethiopian journalists and bloggers accused of supporting terrorism were released from prison on Wednesday after the case against them collapsed, a government spokesman said.
They were among nine writers detained in April and put on trial after being charged under the country’s 2009 anti-terrorism law that the U.S. and United Nations said criminalizes legitimate dissent. The prosecution had argued they had been involved in a plot with U.S.-based political group Ginbot 7, which Ethiopia labels a terrorist organization.
“The prosecutor has withdrawn its charge from five defendants,” Shimeles Kemal, the state minister of communications, said by phone Wednesday from the capital, Addis Ababa. “The prosecutor has the prerogative to withdraw its charge at any time before judgment.”
Barack Obama is set to make the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, this month. Those released are journalists Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Edom Kassaye and Tesfalem Waldyes and Zone 9 contributors Zelalem Kibret and Mahlet Fantahun, Communications Minister Redwan Hussien said Thursday.
They “are just accomplices where the remaining are the main actors,” he said by phone. The government acted out of “magnanimity,” Redwan said. “The case of the remaining ones is not that easy to just forgo.”
Ethiopia has jailed the highest number of journalists in Africa after its neighbor, Eritrea, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Imprisoned journalist Reeyot Alemu will also be released Thursday, about a year ahead of schedule, Alemu Gobebo, her father, said by phone from the capital. Reeyot’s 14-year sentence in January 2012 for anti-government plotting was reduced to five years on appeal six months later, according to CPJ.
Prisoners are often released after serving two-thirds of their jail terms and her release is unconnected to the Zone 9 decision, Redwan said.
Ethiopia’s government frequently pardons convicts, including opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa in 2010 and two Swedish journalists, who embedded with an ethnic-Somali rebel group, in 2012.