An Ethiopian court has sentenced five men to death and 33 other people to life in prison for conspiring to assassinate public officials and topple the government. Two others received lesser sentences. Only one of those facing the death penalty was in the courtroom when the sentences were read.
A three-judge panel in Ethiopia handed down sentences to 39 men and one woman in the so-called Ginbot Seven, or May 15 conspiracy case.
The five sentenced to die are all civilians with connections to opposition political parties. The others are mostly from Ethiopia's military services.
In handing down the sentences, chief judge Adem Ibrahim told the condemned men they should have learned lessons from previous convictions stemming from violence that followed Ethiopia's last national elections in May 2005.
Among those sentenced to die was Berhanu Nega. He was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, but never took office, and was among opposition leaders given life terms for inciting the post-election violence.
After being pardoned in 2007, Berhanu went to the United States, where he founded the May 15 movement, which calls Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government 'illegitimate' and advocates its ouster. He is currently an economics professor at a university in Pennsylvania.
In interviews with VOA news, he has denied being part of any plot to assassinate officials or create public havoc.
Berhanu and three of the others sentenced to death were tried in absentia. The only one present to hear the sentence was Melaku Tefera, an organizer for the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, whose founder Birtukan Mideksa is serving a life term in connection with the 2005 violence.
After these latest sentences were handed down, UDJ spokesman Siye Abraha questioned the death penalty in what he called a 'political case.'
"The overall problem in the country is political and the solution is basically political. I do not condone any form of violence, but I do not believe that the solution is killing people," he said. "I think the problems we see here and there should be seen in the broader political context, and the fundamental solution to our problems, as they stand now, is opening the political space, and also in terms of reconciliation and amnesty."
Ethiopia's government has staunchly rejected allegations the case is political. Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen Bezabeih says prosecutors presented clear evidence of a conspiracy to create public havoc and incite rebellion within Ethiopia's military.
"The court decides upon the evidences of the case and the law of the country, so at this time they may say, it just is a political case, but they saw that the court has got so [much] evidence, more than 85 personal evidences, witnesses, and we present more than 200 and above documents evidence, so this is not a political case but a pure, pure legal issue," he said.
Mekonnen said he was not sure whether the government would ask for extradition of those convicted in absentia. A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Addis Ababa said there is currently no extradition treaty between the United States and Ethiopia.
The remaining 35 defendants are mostly current or former military officers, including two generals. During the penalty phase of the trial, many had asked for clemency, saying they were decorated combat veterans who had proven their loyalty to the country.
All were sentenced to life in prison except for two army majors who admitted guilt and testified for the prosecution. They were given 10 years at hard labor.
Defense attorneys for several of the defendants said they plan to appeal the sentences. But they said the appeals process could take years.