Monday, July 16, 2007

Ethiopia slaps life sentences on more than 30 opposition figures

KALITI, Ethiopia (AFP) - Ethiopia's high court on Monday sentenced 35 opposition leaders to life imprisonment for inciting rebellion, after the prosecution had asked for the death penalty. if
Those sentenced in the wake of violence that rocked the capital during 2005 elections included Hailu Shawl and Bernahu Nega, two senior leaders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party.

Five of the life sentences handed down by the court sitting in Kaliti, some 25 kilometres (16 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa, were given in absentia.

Eight of the 38 defendants present received prison terms ranging from 18 months to 18 years from judge Adil Ahmed.

"Even though some of the accused have been found guilty of multiple charges the court has deemed life imprisonment as a sufficient and comprehensive verdict for the action taken," Adil said.

All the defendants can appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court and as a last resort ask for presidential pardon.

The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International protested the sentences and called for the defendants' release.

"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 Programme, said in a statement.

Prosecutors last week had requested the death penalty for 38 of the defendants, who were among scores put on trial on charges of inciting the violence following the disputed polls which the ruling party won but the opposition claims were rigged.

"According to the country's penal code maximum punishment should be dealt to parties found guilty of plotting against the constitution," chief prosecutor Abraha Tetemke had said on July 9.

News that prosecutors had requested the death penalty earned the US-backed regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a warning from Washington.

"We call on the Ethiopian government and High Court to take action in making a final sentencing determination which is consistent with the greater objectives of bolstering the rule of law and promoting much-needed reconciliation," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had said.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had also expressed great concern last week and described the prosecutors' requested sentence as "outrageous"

"By demanding the death penalty for members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the prosecutor has confirmed to the international community that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government is trying to stifle all political opposition," RSF said in a statement last week.

Four journalists were among the defendants. One was sentenced to life in prison, while the other three received sentences of 18 years, three years and 18 months respectively.

The verdict "didn't come as a surprise, we all expected it," said a relative of one of the main defendants speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is absolutely nothing to regret in their actions".

Earlier this year, the Ethiopian parliament approved a report which said 193 civilians and six policemen died during the unrest in 2005 in one of the darkest chapters in the country's recent past.

The violence in Addis Ababa and other cities in June and November 2005 "occurred due to infancy of the democratic system of the country", the report said.

The figures compiled by the inquiry were three times higher than the government's official death toll of 54, prompting protests from Western donors.

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