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 Monday.
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.
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 a statement Monday, 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 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.
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 43 people faced four other charges, but only nine chose to put up a defense.
Late last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud, but insisted they did not use excessive force. A senior judge appointed to investigate the violence had accused the security forces of excessive force.