ADDIS ABABA — An Ethiopian court on Tuesday sentenced five senior opposition figures to death and 33 other people to life imprisonment for plotting to assassinate government officials.
The Ethiopian government claimed in April it had uncovered a plot to kill government officials and sabotage infrastructure by a group called “Ginbot 7” (May 15) allegedly led by the main opposition challenger in the disputed 2005 elections.
“The following five have committed grave offences and four of them have not learnt from their previous sentences,” Judge Adam Ibrahim of the federal High Court said.
“Therefore we have been obliged to give the most severe sentences.”
Many of the accused were sentenced in absentia, including the alleged mastermind of the plot, US-exiled Berhanu Nega who served two years in prison after accusing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime of stealing the 2005 polls.
Twenty-eight of those sentenced were present in the Addis Ababa courtroom, including Melaku Tefera, a senior opposition member who was among those sentenced to death.
The death sentences were handed down to the alleged political leaders of the plot while most of the 33 slapped with life in prison are active or retired army officers.
Death sentences are regularly pronounced in the east African nation — the second most populous in sub-Saharan Africa — but rarely carried out. The last execution is believed to have taken place in 2007.
The defendants’ relatives and lawyers said they would appeal the sentences.
“I will appeal, I’m not satisfied with the decision. It’s harsh, I hope it will be reversed after we appeal it,” said Tidenekyalesh Tesfa, whose client, wealthy businessman Getu Worku, was sentenced to life and had his property confiscated.
The relative of another army officer who was sentenced to life in jail struggled to hold back her tears after the sentences were pronounced.
“It’s a pity. There is no justice in Ethiopia… the evidence was incomplete,” she told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He served his country, he sacrificed his whole life for the military… but for what?”
A total of 46 people were formally charged in the case on variety of accusations ranging from conspiracy to dismantle constitutional order, weapons smuggling as well as recruiting and arming opposition members.
The trial, one of the most high-profile in the country’s recent history, comes against a tense political backdrop, ahead of general elections scheduled for May next year.
Rights groups have accused Meles’ regime of instilling a climate of fear ahead of the polls.
“The spectre of the 2005 crackdown on the opposition and on the independent press is resurfacing in the run-up to the May 2010 general elections,” the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a recent statement.
A senior US official also voiced concern last month at what he described as a “reduction in political space and the ability of opposition parties to operate.”
Some 200 people died in violence that erupted following the disputed results of the 2005 elections.
Berhanu Nega’s now-defunct opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy had won an unprecedented number of seats.