Ethiopia drops charges against Zone 9 bloggers

Addis Ababa - Prosecutors in Ethiopia on Wednesday dropped charges against two bloggers critical of the government, and announced they would abandon the prosecution of a third amid a wave of prisoner releases.

The move ends the case of the bloggers from the Zone 9 website whose arrest four years ago was condemned as an attack on press freedom.

"The judge says they have dropped charges," Zone 9 blogger Atnafu Berhane told AFP.

Prosecutors withdrew accusations against bloggers Befekadu Haile and Natnael Feleke of inciting violence, Atnafu said.

He added that his own charge, also of inciting violence, wasn't dropped because of a courtroom error, but that he expects it to be withdrawn on Friday.

"For us, it's good news, for our friends, our family," Atnafu said.

The website's name is taken from the term reportedly used by prisoners of an Addis Ababa jail, which has eight zones.

The ninth refers to the rest of the country - where civic liberties are also in short supply, according to government critics.

Six Zone 9 bloggers were arrested in April 2014 as part of a wider crackdown in the East African country.

Two were released in July of the following year, while the remaining four were charged with terrorism alongside another blogger, Soleyana Gebremichael, who was tried in absentia as she was living in exile in the United States.

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While the five were eventually acquitted, prosecutors last year won permission from Ethiopia's Supreme Court to retry Natnael and Atnafu on new charges, while Befekadu was also tried separately.

Ethiopia has released hundreds of prisoners and dropped charges against others in recent weeks.

The releases follow Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's announcement last month that the government would release jailed "politicians" in order "to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic platform".

State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported jailed journalist Eskinder Nega would be released later on Wednesday along with opposition leader Andualem Arage.

While welcoming the end of the prosecution, Atnafu said reforms were needed to protect bloggers like himself.

"It's not a real change, it's not a real reform. The political space has to be open for all decent voices," he said.

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