An Ethiopian court has handed down a death sentence to an alleged leader of an outlawed Oromo separatist group and given stiff prison terms to 15 others convicted of plotting to overthrow the government.
A three-judge panel found 16 defendants guilty of conspiracy to wage war on Ethiopia's government as part of a plan to establish a separate Oromo state. Oromos are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, comprising about 40 percent of the country's population.
The verdicts were handed down last week, but the news was delayed because of the Easter holiday.
The defendants were arrested in 2007 and 2008 and were accused of being members or sympathizers of the Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF, which the government considers to be a terrorist group.
Most were sentenced to jail terms of 10 to 13 years without parole. But alleged group leader Mesfin Abebe was sentenced to death. Another defendant, Tesfahun Chemeda, was given a life term.
Ethiopian Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen Bezabeih says the charges included killings and armed robberies aimed at terrorizing the population, and financing the OLF's separatist campaign.
"They were high officials of the OLF party, and they tried to overthrow the government and tried to secede the Oromia federation from the federal states. And they robbed a factory; they killed police and other security persons in Oromia," Bezabeih said.
The accused included several prominent Oromo businessmen and politicians. Two were well-known Addis Ababa hotel operators. Another was Bekele Jirata, general secretary of the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement, or OFDM, which is part of the main opposition bloc in Ethiopia's upcoming parliamentary elections.
Bekele has been listed in the U.S. State Department human rights report as a political prisoner. Other defendants in the case are listed as victims of arbitrary detention.
But Bekele was released on bail during the court proceedings and disappeared early this year. He was sentenced in absentia.
OFDM party leader Bulcha Demeksa says Bekele had denied being an OLF member, and that he had fled the country to escape what he thought would be an unfair verdict.
"He knew that they never care for evidence. They just sentence you to whatever they want. He knows that, so he had to run away," Demeksa said.
According to Bulcha, Bekele said he was tortured in prison, charges the government denies.
The OLF case is the second in recent months in which death sentences have been handed out to alleged coup plotters. Five prominent opposition political activists were sentenced to die in late December in the so-called Ginbot Seven, or May 15, case.
Four of those, including Ginbot Seven party leader Berhanu Nega, were sentenced in absentia. Berhanu, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia's 2005 elections, never took office. He lives in exile in the United States.
The only Ginbot Seven defendant present in court to hear the death sentence pronounced was Melaku Tefera, an official of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party. UDJ leader Birtukan Mideksa is also in jail, serving a life sentence in connection with violent post-election demonstrations in 2005.