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Ethiopian Prosecutor Seeks Death Penalty for Convicted Opposition

Ethiopian prosecutors are demanding the death penalty for 38 members of the opposition who were convicted of treason and trying to overthrow the government. As Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi, observers fear the demand is the latest evidence of a political crackdown in Ethiopia.

The 38 were convicted in June for their role in demonstrations two years ago that saw hundreds of thousands of people protest the results of national elections. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government retained power in the vote that European Union and other observers described as seriously flawed.

The top-court prosecutor, Abraha Tetemke, said the 38 had created havoc, destroyed state property, and were responsible for the deaths of state security forces during the protests. He said they deserved to be sentenced to death as a result.

They have until Wednesday to give the court evidence to ease their sentence. They had refused to defend themselves during their trial because they believed the process was flawed, so it is not clear if they will bring anything forward. The next hearing is set for July 16.

A Kenyan human rights lawyer, Otendo Amoto, expressed concern that Ethiopia's government is manipulating the courts to destroy the opposition.

"In such circumstances, the courts need to be extra careful so that they are not used to fight political battles and to fix political opponents," he said. "I think this is repression in its highest form. The use of penal instruments to fight political battles is actually worse than using crude weapons to clamp down on opponents."

At total of 193 demonstrators and six police people were killed in post-election violence, and more than 100 opposition figures were put on trial for their role in the protests.

Critics like Amoto fear the government has become more authoritarian in the years since the election. Last week, the U.S.-based human rights group Human Rights Watch accused the government of widespread abuses against civilians in the eastern Ogaden region as it pursues a local rebel group.

And in March, the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report accused the government of extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention of some members of the political opposition. In rural areas, opposition parties are not allowed to rent office space and say they are routinely harassed by members of Prime Minister Meles' ruling EPRDF party.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia has remained a critical U.S. ally in the region and in the war on terror. Washington-backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December and continues to help train its troops.

The prime minister had earlier rejected demands from western diplomats that the 38 jailed opposition members be released. For several weeks, some observers had suggested that he would pardon the prisoners as a concession to western concerns. But he later appeared to rule that out when he said the courts must decide the issue.

Ethiopian courts have sentenced several people to death in recent years but an execution has not been carried out since the 1990s.