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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Jailed Ethiopians 'to be freed'
Doctors treating injured protesters
The opposition blames the violence on the security forces
A group of 38 Ethiopian opposition leaders found guilty of links to violent election protests is to be freed, they have told their families.

They say they have signed a document to secure their release but it is not clear what this is.

Their friends and relatives went on Monday morning to the town of Kaliti where they are being held but were disappointed when they were not freed.

The 38 were convicted earlier this month but have not yet been sentenced.

They were originally charged with treason and genocide - charges which sparked international outrage.

Secret deal

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Addis Ababa says the speculation is that the opposition leaders might apologise for their actions, or they might finally agree to take up the seats they won in parliament, something they have refused to do so far.

But the prisoners had all refused to tell their families exactly what they had signed, this being a condition of the deal they made.

(Left to right): Human rights activist Mesfin Woldemariam and the opposition CUD's Birtukan Midek, Berhanu Nega and leader Hailu Shawel. File photo
The opposition leaders say the courts are not independent
Among those convicted are lawyers, university teachers and a former United Nations envoy to the international court for Rwanda.

Our reporter says the official position is that the matter is before the court and the law has to take its course.

The prisoners' lawyers are due to offer pleas in mitigation on Wednesday and it is possible that that could open the door for their release, she says.

They could face the death penalty for their crimes, which range from armed rebellion to "outrage against the constitution".

Some 193 people were killed in protests at alleged rigging in the 2005 elections, won by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party.

The government has denied accusations that the conviction was intended to stifle political dissent.

But an opposition lawyer said the suddenness of the verdict exposed the trial as a sham and mockery of justice.

Hundreds of thousands took part in demonstrations complaining of fraud and vote-rigging.

Most of the dead were protesters killed by security forces.

An independent inquiry carried out by an Ethiopian judge concluded that the police had used excessive force.

He went on to accuse them of carrying out a massacre. The judge later fled Ethiopia, saying he had been put under pressure to change his findings and had received death threats.

The Coalition for Unity and Democracy leaders refuse to recognise the court and did not present evidence in their defence.

The judge said that because they had failed to defend themselves, he had no option but to find them guilty.

Andargachew Tsege, convicted in absentia as he is in exile in London, told the BBC he fears that his colleagues could be sentenced to "the most extreme" sentence.

"This government... has no notion of the implications of its actions - it's very vindictive, it has no sense of the sanctity of law, with all the various atrocities it has committed," he said.

Tarnished

The government points out that it introduced multi-party elections to Ethiopia after years of military rule.

In the elections, the opposition made huge gains but says it was cheated out of victory.

Two months ago, a judge threw out controversial charges of attempted genocide and treason against another 111 people arrested after the election protests.

The violence and the charges of election fraud have tarnished Mr Meles' image as a favourite of Western donors and one of a new wave of reforming African leaders.


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