As the case crawls to trial, each of the nine defendants were asked by the three panel judges of the 19th criminal bench of the Federal High Court to enter a plea of guilty.
The bloggers and journalists, who remain in custody since April 2014, took turns to contest the prosecution’s charge which accuses them of causing “serious risk to the safety or health of the public or section of the public” and “serious damage to property” under the anti-terrorism proclamation.
“From the reading of the charge it appears I am being accused of terrorism. But an act of terror has been committed against me and not the other way round,” Befeqadu Hailu, second defendant, told the court.
“If this was a country where rule of law prevails, it would have been my accusers who should have been in my place,” followed Natnael Feleke.
The judges then intervened to reprimand the defendants to observe the legal procedure and avoid making such statements and simply enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.
But the defendants continued to criticize the charge which they said lacked clarity.
“I could not understand what I am specifically being accused of and so it is impossible for me to enter a plea. I ask the court to help me understand the charge,” Zelalem Kibret, who was a law instructor at Ambo University prior his arrest, said.
The defendants include three journalists – Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis and Edom Kassaye, – who all protested their innocence.
“I am a journalist and journalism is not a crime,” said freelance journalist Tesfalem who had worked for the English weekly Fortune newspaper and English monthly magazine Addis Standard.
Judges said the defendant’s statements are taken as a plea of not guilty and adjourned the case for March 30. The court will reconvene to hear prosecution witnesses, numbering around 30, for three consecutive days.
Two weeks ago, defendants appealed for the presiding judge Sheleme Bekele to be removed stating that they do not believe he would be fair. Although their motion was rejected by the other two judges, Judge Sheleme said he had withdrawn on his own accord. However, the judge returned on Wednesday.
Before moving on to the plea, one of the judges explained that the request of the presiding judge to be withdrawn is matter which will be addressed by the administrative wing of the court.
The hearing also saw another complaint lodged against the Addis Ababa Prison Administration by the two female defendants – Edom and Mahlet Fantahun – regarding visitation rights. A third female defendant, Solyana Shimeles is tried in absentia.
The female defendants, who are detained at Kality, accused the prison administration of restricting visitation hours and number of visitors who may visit them. They court had ordered the prison administration to respond to the accusations in writing before February 25.