Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Ethiopia death sentences over assassination plot

Berhanu Nega celebrating in Addis Aababa after his release from prison, July 2007
Exiled politician Berhanu Nega denies leading an armed struggle

An Ethiopian court has sentenced five people to death and 33 others to life in prison for planning to assassinate government officials.

Prosecutors had said the convicted were part of the Ginbot 7 (15 May) group led by Berhanu Nega, a US-based dissident.

He was among those sentenced to death, as was opposition leader Melaku Tefera.

Mr Melaku was present in the Addis Ababa courtroom with 27 other accused. Some of the defendants have said they were tortured into confessing.

Convicting the men in November, Judge Adem 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.

Army officers sentenced

"The... five have committed grave offences and four of them have not learnt from their previous sentences," said Judge Adem passing down the sentences.

"Therefore, we have been been obliged to give the most severe sentences."

We know the price of freedom - the preservation of rights always forces us to pay sacrifice and if that sacrifice means to be sentenced to death, so be it
Ginbot 7's Andergachew Tsege

Relatives of the men broke down in the courtroom as the sentences were read out, says the BBC's Uduak Amimo in Addis Ababa.

The death sentences were reserved for what the court called the political leaders of the plot, while those sentenced to life imprisonment were active or former military officers, AFP news agency said.

Lawyers for the defence said they would appeal.

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

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

"We know the price of freedom - the preservation of rights always forces us to pay sacrifice and if that sacrifice means to be sentenced to death, so be it."

'Ethnic apartheid'

The authorities have long accused Mr Berhanu of spearheading opposition plots.

He was arrested after being elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 and jailed for treason.

He was pardoned in 2007 and left for the United States, where he began teaching economics at a university.

Ginbot 7 was named after the date of the 2005 elections, which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party won, but which the opposition said was rigged.

Mr Berhanu denies engaging in armed struggle against the government, but Mr 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," Mr 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.

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

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

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