Ethiopian opposition leaders escape death sentence
Mon 16 Jul 2007, 11:42 GMT
[-] Text [+] By Tsegaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian court sentenced 35 opposition members to life in prison on Monday, rebuffing a prosecution request that they be executed for trying to overthrow the government, treason and inciting violence.
The remaining eight defendants, including four journalists, were ordered to serve terms of between 18 months and 18 years in a case rights groups and some donor governments have criticised as politically motivated.
"The accused have committed serious crimes, which caused the death of civilians and security forces and attempted to overthrow the government," Judge Adil Ahmed told the court.
"The accused have also failed to present to the court mitigating evidences for the charges brought against them."
Many of the defendants, calling the case a politically motivated charade, had refused to present a defence despite court orders to do so.
Thirty-eight defendants were present, while the rest were tried in absentia. Relatives and defendants in the court wept, while others held their head in their hands in apparent shock.
Adil said they had the right to appeal, but it was not immediately clear whether they would.
"We are satisfied by the decision. It's a victory not only for the rule of law, but for all those people who have sustained damage as a result of the criminal acts perptrated by offenders," Chief Prosecutor Shimeles Kemal told Reuters.
"It is also a victory to our fledling democracy."
JAILED AFTER ELECTION
The defendants, among them the leadership of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), were convicted last month on charges relating to violent protests over 2005 polls the opposition says were rigged.
CUD Chairman Hailu Shawel and Addis Ababa mayor-elect Berhanu Nega and others elected to parliamentary seats are also among those sentenced.
Merara Gudina, deputy chairman of the United Ethiopian Democratic Front -- the second largest opposition party after the CUD -- said the penalty was "very harsh".
"UEDF has always said the CUD case is not a court case. It is a political case. We have been demanding that the government should find a political solution to the CUD issue," Merara told Reuters.
A parliament-commissioned inquiry found 199 civilians and police officers were killed in clashes over the vote, which was billed as the freest ever in the relatively young democracy.
The outcome, which gave Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling coalition the victory, sparked two rounds of violence. The parliamentary inquiry found that more than 800 people were injured and 30,000 suspected opposition members were arrested.
The 2005 results gave the opposition its largest showing in parliament. But European Union observers listed a catalogue of irregularities including the intimidation of opponents.
Meles has said he regretted the post-election violence, but blamed it on opportunistic rioters and an opposition conspiracy to topple him by force.
Last month, he condemned calls by Western diplomats for the 38 in custody to be released as "shameful and wrong". The remaining defendants are in exile, and would face arrest should they return to Ethiopia.
The crackdown tarnished Meles' democratic credentials and prompted donors, including Britain and the EU, to halt direct budgetary aid to sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation of 81 million people.