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Ethiopian bloggers turn undercover court reporters

Ethiopia's bloggers turned undercover court reporters over the past weeks, giving daily commentary on a controversial trial of more than 100 opposition politicians, campaigners and journalists.

Leading opposition figures were arrested and charged with attempted genocide, treason and a range of other serious offences in the months following the country's last general elections in 2005.

The trial has stretched on for more than a year, with numerous adjournments and breaks and statements from scores of witnesses. Mainstream journalists have concentrated on covering the main developments in the proceedings – the arraignments, the bail hearings and the major legal statements.

But the resulting gaps in the reporting have been filled by some of Ethiopia's most prolific and politicised bloggers who managed to secure seats in the court.

Seminawork led the way over the past few weeks with a string of posts marking every twist and turn and delay in the case. His entries came thick and fast. Court adjourned for tomorrow, was followed by Postponed again, followed by Breaking news:court ruled defendants to defend their case followed by Death sentence beckons our heroes.

The last post read:

The court in charge of the treason and genocide trial of kinijit [the main opposition coalition] leaders, civil society members and independent journalists has today ruled that all council members of kinijit including Hailu Shawel, Berhanu Nega and Birtukan Mideksa should defend their case in the treason charge.

The court ruled that the council’s decision has a direct cause and effect relationship with the June 8 and November one disturbances. It also ruled that the prosecutor has produced sufficient evidence to prove that they have committed treason.

The leaders have previously decided not to defend the case. If they stick to their previous decision, it means they will be sentenced for committing treason soon. The crime of treason carries a death sentence or severe imprisonment in Ethiopian law.

The Other Side described the drama of the moment when the legal decision was made in The Ruling:

With his last word—before it was even clear that he had finished his sentence–Judge Adil turned abruptly and rushed out the back exit, with the other two following closely.

It was obvious that no one, least of all the defendants, expected such an outcome. The family members received the news with a mixture of anger, fatigue and sadness. “Ayzuachehu! Ayzuachehu!” [Courage! Courage!] rang out from both sides of the room as the prisoners, with their unwavering courage, tried to reassure their loved ones and encourage them to be strong. Court resumes tommorrow.

The government has accused the opposition politicians of trying to overthrow the state by provoking two periods of violent civil unrest in the country. More than 200 people died in June and November 2005 when anti-government protesters who claimed the elections were rigged clashed with armed police and soldiers on the streets of the capital Addis Ababa and other cities. Opposition supporters – including almost all of Ethiopia's political bloggers – have dismissed the charges and described the prolonged trial as a political farce.

Carpe Diem Ethiopia spoke for many anti-government bloggers in his post An Ethiop Office Rant

Ethiopian democracy continues to be on a standstill: Predictably, the treason and attempted genocide trials have met repeated courtroom delays and the unwillingness (and/or inability) of High Court judges to proceed with deliberations on the underlying alleged offenses signals continued governmental repression. The 2006 U.S. Country Report on Human Rights Practices recounts a laundry list of abuses

Elsewhere in the Ethiopian blogosphere, several writers focused on the story of an Ethiopian woman called Kamilat Mehdi who had acid thrown in her face by a stalker. Meskel Square told the story in Ethiopia acid victim shows many women are at risk. Seminawork's new offshoot community blog Ethio-Zagol Post Diaries described a vigil held outside the woman's hospital in In the shadow of Kamilat's vigil. Weblog Ethiopia expressed his/her anger in Evils of man. The Concoction was so moved that she launched a whole new blog focusing on violence against women called VAW – Do Something!.

Things We Should Have Written Down came up with the most moving post of the fortnight when he described coming across a crash in An Accident:

All five of us were laughing when our car rounded the corner and we saw the truck lying on its side in the middle of the road. The smell of gasoline filled my nostrils and the back of my throat. There were a handful of people standing beside the truck and one man sitting in the grass with his head in his hands. We stopped, and I saw an arm sticking out of the now-vertical passenger cab. Someone whispered, “This just happened.”

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