Ethiopian opposition leaders sentenced to life

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The Independent Online

A court sentenced 35 opposition politicians and activists to life in prison and denied them the right to vote or run for public office for inciting violence in an attempt to overthrow the government, a judge said yesterday.

The prosecution had called for death sentences against the defendants, who included Ethiopia's top opposition leaders and five people charged, tried and convicted in absentia. Another eight defendants facing similar charges were sentenced to between 18 months and 18 years in prison, said Judge Adil Ahmed, reading the sentences on behalf of the three-judge panel.

During its Monday evening news bulletin, state-owned Ethiopian Television announced that the people sentenced Monday had written to the president to ask for a pardon, saying President Girma Woldegirogis will look into the request. The station did not give any more details.

In a statement, Amnesty International said that some weeks ago the defendants had reportedly signed a statement that was expected to lead to a pardon and reconciliation with the ruling party.

"As a matter of trying to bring together the Ethiopian people and bringing an end to this particular chapter of political turmoil, we would urge the Ethiopian authorities to strongly consider clemency for these individuals," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

International human rights groups had widely condemned the trial as an attempt to silence government critics, and opposition leaders have claimed it was politically motivated. In its Monday statement, Amnesty International said it was dismayed at the life sentences.

"On the basis of the information we have, most - if not all - of those sentenced today are prisoners of conscience imprisoned on account of their opinions, who have not used or advocated violence and should therefore be immediately and unconditionally released," Erwin van der Borght, director of Amnesty's Africa program, said in the statement.

The judges declined to follow the recommendation of the prosecution to hand down the death penalty, Adil said.

"The court has deemed life imprisonment as a comprehensive and sufficient verdict for the actions taken," he said.

All those sentenced to life imprisonment have also been permanently denied the right to vote or run for office. Those given lesser sentences were banned from office for five years.

The defendants can appeal to the Supreme Court, but it was not clear whether they will do so.

The judges also ordered the closure of three publishing companies and fined each of them between US$1,700 and US$13,600.

Those facing life imprisonment include the leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Hailu Shawel; Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa; former Harvard scholar Mesfin Woldemariam; and former U.N. special envoy and a former professor at Virginia's Norfolk State University, Yacob Hailemariam.

"They are political prisoners of conscience," said Yacob's wife, Tegist, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virgina. "They are elected by the Ethiopian people, so it's really disturbing news. I'm ashamed of the judge. ... They didn't do any crime except winning the election."

His wife said she was shocked that Yacob and the others received the same sentence as former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was sentenced to life in January after a 12-year trial in absentia for genocide and other crimes.

Mengistu, known as "the butcher of Addis Ababa," ruled from 1974 to 1991. Some experts say 150,000 university students, intellectuals and politicians were killed in a nationwide purge by Mengistu's Marxist regime.

The Federal High Court trial began in December 2005 following postelection violence that erupted during protests over balloting six months earlier.

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi held onto power. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said they were marred by irregularities.

Initially, the opposition leaders, journalists and others were charged with treason, inciting violence and attempted genocide. Judges dropped the treason and attempted genocide charges in April and later that month freed 25 prisoners, among them eight journalists.

Since April, a total of 52 people faced four other charges, but only nine chose to put up a defense. The trial for the remaining nine continues on July 25.

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