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Ethiopian court sentences five to death for assassination plot

By Babs Odukoya
23 December 2009   |   6:19 am
AN Ethiopian court yesterday sentenced five people to death and 33 others to life in prison for planning to assassinate government officials, agency reports claimed. Many of the accused, Associated Press (AP), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Agence France Presse (AFP) stated, were sentenced in absentia, including the alleged mastermind of the plot, United States (U.S.)-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.

Yesterday’s judgment is coming after the Ethiopian government claimed in April it had uncovered a plot to kill government officials and sabotage infrastructure by a group called “Ginbot 7” 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,” he asserted.

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 continent’s second most populous – but rarely carried out. The last execution is believed to have taken place in 2007.

Some of the defendants have said they were tortured into confessing. But convicting the men in November, Judge Ibrahim said the court had not been convinced of the torture allegations.

The authorities have said they found weapons, including land mines, at the men’s homes when they were arrested in April.

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, 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?”

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.

Also, senior U.S. official 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.

Andergachew Tsege, secretary general of Ginbot 7 and one of those sentenced to death in absentia, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that the ruling was not unexpected.

“It is not surprising to us and probably to the people of Ethiopia,” he said.

While Berhanu denies engaging in armed struggle against the government, Andergachew said attempts to engage in peaceful politics had failed to deliver.

“The political space in Ethiopia for peaceful struggle has been killed by Meles, so we have no choice,” Andergachew said.

“As long as they (the government) refuse to listen, we will use any means possible to force them to listen or to force them out of office.”

Rights groups have expressed concern that the government is trying to silence dissent before Ethiopia holds its next national election in June 2010.

Andergachew said Ginbot 7 was angered that political and economic life in Ethiopia was dominated by Meles’s Tigrean ethnic group.

“They are building what we call an ethnic apartheid in Ethiopia,” he said.