News / The Homeland

Ethiopia freed jailed writers but friends remain behind bars

By THEODROS YESHIAREGA,  Correspondent   JULY 12, 2015

The sudden release of jailed Ethiopian writers
led some to flag it “Obama Effect”

STOCKHOLM — “An Ethiopian Journalist Jailed for Her Integrity” reads the title of a story about Edom Kassaye that was circulating on the Internet hours before rumors of her release and others broke on social media.

The Sweden-based Ethiopian podcast, Wazema Radio, was the first to confirm the release of at least three members of the Zone 9 collective. Soon, it was learnt Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Tesfalem Woldyes and Zelalem Kibret were all released after prosecutors dropped all charges on July 8.

The release of the writers, which stunned the defendants, their solicitors and admirers alike, was followed by yet another unexpected release of Reeyot Alemu, who walked out of prison on June 9 after serving four years in prison.

The mood on social media was a mix of confusion, happiness, disbelief and suspicion. Some were jubilant while others remained cautious and skeptical of the government’s abrupt move.

The Supreme Court, which recently concluded hearing evidences, was due to deliver a verdict in the coming week — the very week Barack Obama is expected to be in Ethiopia as the first sitting US president.

The timing and the manner in which they were released have thus led some to consider the turn of events as an “Obama effect” — a charm-offensive by Ethiopian officials ahead of the President’s historic trip to the country.

Ethiopian authorities say there is no correlation between the release of the writers and Obama’s visit. The Ethiopian News Agency reported, quoting the Ministry of Justice, that President Obama’s trip has nothing to do with the release of the writers, as Ethiopia is a sovereign nation and the President is visiting the country for his own mission.

For the recently released writers who managed to prove their innocence in a court of law, the situation has now left them with some sort of a survivor guilt.

In an exclusive with VOA Amharic, the released bloggers and journalists as well as father/attorney of columnist Reeyot Alemu expressed their mixed feelings. Zelalem Kibret, a.k.a Zola, said he feels guilty for being released while his four colleagues who were arrested with the same charges still remain behind bars.

#FreeZone9Bloggers continues to trend on Twitter and has become the second largest hashtag, at least here in Sweden.

The family and friends of the writers, social media users and human rights and free speech watchdogs are still demanding the government to release all prisoners of conscience. In the meantime, others are rather sarcastically urging Mr. Obama to visit Ethiopia as often as possible.

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