Prosecutors in Ethiopia are seeking the death penalty for 40 people found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government. Twenty-seven of the defendants were tried and convicted last week. Thirteen others, most of them living in exile, were earlier found guilty in absentia. This VOA correspondent was in the courtroom as the 27 in custody pleaded for reduced sentences.
One by one, the 27 convicted conspirators were given a chance to explain to a three-judge panel why they should not be executed for planning a campaign of violence aimed at bringing down Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government.
The group was convicted of five charges. Among them were trying to incite rebellion within the army, plotting to kill senior government officials and destroy strategic facilities.
All were said to be members of the outlawed May 15th movement led by exiled political leader Berhanu Nega. Berhanu, now a university professor in the United States, was among the 13 convicted in absentia. He has denied the existence of a plot, but has repeatedly called Prime Minister Meles's government 'illegitimate' and said it should be removed by any means.
Many of 27 convicted last week are current or former military officers. Speaking to the court, they pointed to their decades of decorated service. Some spoke of fighting with the forces that overthrew the previous Marxist regime. Several listed the medals they had won and the wounds they suffered fighting for Ethiopia in its war against Eritrea a decade ago, or serving in Somalia, or in the counterinsurgency campaign against rebels in the independence-minded Ogaden region.
Two defendants, both former army majors, admitted their guilt and threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
Ethiopia's Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen Bezadeih says while the death penalty is being sought for all 40, the two who pleaded guilty would get special consideration.
"We asked the court for the death penalty, but we also asked the court to minimize the penalty for two persons who told to the court their activities," Bezadeih said.
The other defendants, including the lone woman among the 40, maintained their innocence throughout the trial, though some said they respect the court's decision.
Several defendants, including the few represented by attorneys, questioned whether the death penalty is appropriate in a case where the charge is simply planning a coup, not carrying it out. Presiding judge Adem Ibrahim was silent on the matter, but Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen said the cumulative weight of all the charges calls for the maximum punishment.
"According to our procedure law, if there are so many charges, each penalty will be added and they will be penalized the sum of the penalties, so when we see their convictions, by acting contradiction with the constitution, and also they conspired to make a crisis between army forces, the penalty would be the highest penalty point, which is the death penalty," Bezadeih said.
Those facing the maximum penalty include Melaku Teferra, a senior member of Ethiopia's opposition UDJ, or Unity for Democracy and Justice Party. Melaku was among the scores of political leaders convicted of inciting post-election violence in 2005, then later pardoned.
In outlining the charges Tuesday, Chief Prosecutor Berihu Toldeberhan singled out Melaku, saying he should have learned from his past mistakes.
Melaku is one of two top UDJ officials in prison as next May's elections approach. The party's main leader, Birtukan Mideksa, was also among those jailed after the 2005 election and then pardoned. But she was sent back to prison last December and ordered to finish serving a life sentence after denying that she had asked for the pardon.