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Ethiopia Finds Imposing Death Sentences Easier than Carrying Them Out

An Ethiopian prosecutor’s seeking of the death penalty Monday for 38 opposition activists has drawn expressions of shock from Washington and outrage from human rights groups. The defendants have until Wednesday to present evidence to reduce their sentence. They have been jailed since November, 2005, refusing to defend themselves because they did not think they would get a fair trial. Author and human rights attorney Michael Clough calls those charges unwarranted. He says that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cannot be seen allowing death sentences to be carried out in his country.

“It sounds to me like Meles has already laid out the terms. There will probably be some kind of sentence that would seem on the surface to be fairly harsh, but will then allow the government and Meles in particular to claim that he took a reasonable stand, and that he pardoned the leaders, despite their role in the violence,” he said.

The accused include a leading human rights defender, 76-year old Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, several journalists, two women, and leaders of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy party (CUD). The defendants face charges of usurping the constitution, and a few are still confronted by the government with leading an armed rebellion against the state. Earlier treason and attempted genocide charges were dismissed as 28 other defendants were freed back in April because, observers say, the prosecution lacked a case. Clough says it’s highly unlikely that many defendants will agree to sign government-fashioned admission of guilt statements in exchange for being pardoned, as has been suggested in the weeks since the defendants’ June 11 conviction.

“It’s possible that there may be some way to work out some sort of a deal if they were to go through with a death sentence. In any of these cases, it would cause serious damage to their international standing, so I’m sure the government is looking for some sort of compromise. But given what’s happened so far, I’d be surprised if many of them (the defendants) were willing to agree to anything that amounted to an admission of responsibility for the violence, which was essentially perpetrated by the government,” Clough explained.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is on record as saying there will be no death sentences in these cases. But with prosecutors and perhaps a zealous judge determined to mete out penalties, Michael Clough says the Prime Minister needs to have a ready-made agenda to activate to keep outside opponents from discrediting him.

“I think Meles is one of the more astute political leaders in Africa, and it probably serves his interests to have the prosecutor calling for the death penalty, and then Meles trying to represent himself as a voice of reason. I think that the whole thing is a bit of a charade, because obviously, the only reason that these people are on trial in the first place, is because Meles Zenawi was embarrassed by what happened in the 2005 elections,” he said.

On Monday, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the Ethiopian government to make a final sentencing determination that helps bolster the rule of law and promotes reconciliation. Clough sees US policy goals in Ethiopia to be motivated by ends far beyond the State Department sentencing objectives put forth.

“The only reason the United States is not speaking out harshly against this is because of Ethiopia’s role as an ally of the United States in the war on terror and its involvement in Somalia. If this same thing happened in any country that the United States was not supporting, we would be denouncing it in the most extreme terms,” he said.