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Last Updated: Monday, 9 July 2007, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Ethiopia's democracy on trial
By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Addis Ababa

(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 have been in jail for 18 months
As they turned up in court, expecting to hear their fate, Ethiopia's 38 detained opposition leaders put on a show of bravado.

The CUD leader and principal accused, Hailu Shewal, flaunted a scarf in the colours of the Ethiopian national flag.

One of his colleagues had a ribbon in the national colours tucked into his hatband.

Indeed, the lack of any visible sign of regret for what they had done was one of the reasons cited by the prosecutor for demanding the heaviest possible sentences on those convicted - the death penalty.

In truth, these defendants always seemed like improbable candidates for armed insurrection - elderly professors in tweed or corduroy jackets, earnest young lawyers, a middle aged matron in a suit.

A significant part of Addis Ababa's intelligentsia has spent the past 18 months in jail, facing a hair-raising selection of charges which originally included genocide and treason.

Among them are the president, the vice-president and most of the central council of the opposition CUD coalition, nine elected members of the national parliament, and the man who won the election for mayor of Addis Ababa, Berhanu Negga.

Half a trial

The case goes back to 2005, and that year's elections.

They may have been the fairest held in Ethiopia so far, but the CUD insisted they were still flawed and refused to accept the results or take up the seats they had won in parliament.

The stalemate went on for several months, punctuated by two bouts of violent protest, in which some 193 people were killed, until the government finally seemed to lose patience.

Ethiopian protester in Germany (archive photo)
Ethiopians around the world protested at the violence

Although most of the thousands of protesters detained during the demonstrations were eventually freed without charge, the CUD leadership was charged with a whole range of serious offences against the state, as were a number of journalists and publishers, and some other political activists who had no party affiliations.

There were originally nearly 100 defendants, so many that the trial has been held in a public meeting hall in the small town of Kaliti, outside Addis Ababa, near the prison where the defendants were being held.

At every sitting, the prisoners would troop in, filling nearly half the hall, while friends and relatives smiled and waved from the other side of a simple rope barrier.

But for most of the accused it was only half a trial.

The CUD defendants refused to recognise the court, to instruct lawyers or to offer any defence.

Even so the prosecution didn't have everything its own way.

The judges threw out large chunks of prosecution evidence as inadmissible, dropped the charges of treason, genocide, and freed 25 defendants as having no case to answer.

But that still left the opposition politicians facing charges of outrage against the constitution, obstructing the constitution, impairing the defensive power of the state, and inciting armed rebellion.

Since they offered no defence they were found guilty as charged.

Discussions

The official position is that once they have been charged it is a matter for the court, nothing to do with the government, and the law has to take its course.

But at the same time discreet meetings have been going on behind the scenes, looking for a way to resolve the situation.

Now opposition sympathisers are keen to get the trial over and done with, convinced that once the legal process is over, the political process can start, and the way may be open for the possibility of clemency or pardon.


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