On March 25, bloggers, journalists and activists gathered at a private party in Addis Ababa—the capital of Ethiopia—to celebrate the new freedom of their colleagues. Imprisoned Ethiopian writers and reporters had been released in February under a broad amnesty: some attended the private event, including Eskinder Nega, a blogger and publisher whose detention EFF has been tracking in our Offline series.
But the celebration was interrupted, with the event raided by the authorities. Eskinder, together with Zone 9 bloggers Mahlet Fantahun and Fekadu Mehatemework, online writers Zelalem Workagegnhu and Befiqadu Hailu, and six others were seized and detained without charge.
The eleven have now finally been released, after 12 days of custody. It remains a disturbing example of just how far Ethiopian police are willing to go to intimidate critical voices even in a time of supposed tolerance.
During their detention, the prisoners could be seen through narrow windows in Addis Ababa's Gotera police station, held in tiny stalls crowded with other detainees, in conditions Eskinder described as "inhuman".
...Better to call it jam-packed than imprisoned. About 200 of us are packed in a 5 by 8 meter room divided in three sections. Unable to sit or lay down comfortably, and with limited access to a toilet. Not a single human being deserves this regardless of the crime, let alone us who were captured unjustly. The global community should be aware of such case and use every possible means to bring an end to our suffering immediately.
After a brief Spring of prisoner releases and officially-sanctioned tolerance of anti-government protests and criticism, Ethiopia's autocratic regime appears to be returning to its old ways. A new state of emergency was declared shortly after the resignation of the country's Prime Minister in mid-February. While the government tells the world that it is continuing its policy of re-engagement with its critics, the state of emergency grants unchecked powers to quash dissent, including a wide prohibition on public meetings.
Reporters say that the bloggers were questioned at the party about the display of a traditional Ethiopian flag. The Addis Standard quoted an unnamed politician who attended the event as saying “This has nothing to with the flag, but everything to do with the idea of these individuals... coming together.”
The authorities cannot continue their hair-trigger surveillance and harassment of those documenting its chaotic present online. The country's stability depends on reasonable treatment of its online voices.