ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
A court sentenced 35 opposition politicians and activists, including a former Virginia professor, 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.
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.
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. The station did not give any more details.
Amnesty International said Monday the defendants reportedly signed a statement some weeks ago 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,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
All people sentenced to life imprisonment also have 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 $1,700 and $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 former Norfolk State University professor, Yacob Hailemariam.
International human rights groups have widely condemned the trial as an attempt to silence government critics, and opposition leaders have claimed it was politically motivated.
“They are political prisoners of conscience,” said Yacob’s wife, Tegist, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va. “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.”
Yacob, 62, is a high-ranking official in the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Ethiopia’s main opposition party. He retired from Norfolk State and returned to his home country to run for its parliament in 2005. He won but voting results were disputed.
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.
Yacob’s wife and their son, 23-year-old Sefonias Yacob, said the family will keep pressing for his release.
“We have a lot of our hope in the international community,” Sefonias Yacob said. “The EU (European Union) has been very good about being ahead, kind of taking the lead on this issue. It would be nice to see the United States take such a strong and similar interest, especially when a lot of these imprisoned parliamentarians have deep roots in America.”
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.
Associated Press writer Sonja Barisic contributed to this report from Norfolk, Va.
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