(Reuters) - Ethiopia has charged six bloggers and three journalists with attempting to incite violence, their supporters said on Monday, prompting accusations from rights groups that the government is cracking down on its critics.
All nine defendants, including freelance journalists Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, appeared in court on Sunday after they were rounded up by police on April 25 and April 26, their colleagues told Reuters.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visits Ethiopia on Tuesday, to press the government to "unconditionally release" all the defendants, but Addis Ababa dismissed the criticism of the case.
"The nine arrests signal, once again, that anyone who criticizes the Ethiopian government will be silenced," said Leslie Lefkow, HRW's deputy Africa director.
"The timing of the arrests - just days before the U.S. secretary of state's visit - speaks volumes about Ethiopia's disregard for free speech," she said in a statement.
In 2012, Addis Ababa sentenced a prominent blogger and five other exiled journalists to between eight years to life on charges of conspiring with rebels to topple the government.
In the new case, a colleague of Tesfalem said security officials in plain clothes searched his house and confiscated several materials before taking him to a detention center.
An Ethiopian government official defended the case against the nine, saying it had nothing to do with muzzling the media.
"These are not journalists. Their arrest has nothing to do with journalism but with serious criminal activities," Getachew Reda, an adviser to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said.
"We don't crack down on journalism or freedom of speech. But if someone tries to use his or her profession to engage in criminal activities, then there is a distinction there," Getachew told Reuters.
Critics say Ethiopia - sandwiched between volatile Somalia and Sudan - regularly uses security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and clamp down on media freedoms.
They also point to an anti-terrorism law, passed in 2009, which stipulates that anyone caught publishing information that could incite readers to commit acts of terrorism can be jailed for between 10 and 20 years.
Addis Ababa says the law aims to prevent "terrorist attacks" as it is fighting separatist rebel movements and armed groups.
A court in Addis Ababa adjourned the hearing for the group of bloggers and journalists until May 7 and 8.
Kerry will meet Prime Minister Desalegn and Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom in Addis Ababa to discuss peace efforts in the region and to strengthen ties with Ethiopia, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The State Department says the aim of Kerry's African tour - which will also take in Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola - is to promote democracy and human rights.
(Editing by James Macharia and Gareth Jones)