An Ethiopian court has convicted 27 people accused of conspiring to create public havoc in an attempt to bring down Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government. Some of the defendants could face the death penalty.
A three-judge panel handed down guilty verdicts for 27 of the 46 defendants in the so-called Ginbot Seven case. Thirteen others who are not in custody had earlier been convicted in absentia. The remaining six were acquitted.
Those convicted include several current and retired army officers, including two generals, along with senior opposition political figures. They were charged with plotting to kill unnamed government ministers, destroy strategic facilities and incite rebellion within the army as part of a coup attempt.
Lawyers say some of the defendants could face the death penalty. In a telephone interview, Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen Bezadeih said it would be up to prosecutors to decide whether to seek the maximum sentence.
"I am not sure whether the prosecutors will ask for the death penalty or not," he said. "This will be presented by the prosecutors who followed the case."
Police opened the case in April, seizing weapons and documents they said were evidence of a coup plot masterminded by Berhanu Nega, founder of Ginbot Seven.
Berhanu was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in the disputed 2005 elections, but did not take office and was among opposition leaders jailed for life on charges of fomenting post-election violence.
After being pardoned, Berhanu went to the United States and founded the political organization Ginbot Seven, or May 15, the date of the 2005 election. The party has since been outlawed, and Berhanu was among those convicted in absentia.
Other opposition parties immediately questioned the verdict. A senior leader of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue, Bulcha Demeksa, said it seems impossible that such a complex trial could be completed quickly.
"I do not believe that such an involved case can be cleared up in a matter of four months, five months and sentence so many people," he said. "It is so complicated that it should take a long time for witnesses to [testify] and all kinds of evidence has to be collected and I do not believe a fair judgment can be made so quickly."
But Justice Ministry spokesman Mekonnen countered that the speedy trial was evidence of the judiciary's efficiency.
We are trying to facilitate the justice system to give fast decision, and the case already started before they convicted, the police was followed them before the case was brought to court, and I think it is not fast," he said.
The trial was marked by complaints from defendants that they had been tortured in custody.
A highly-decorated former army general and hero of Ethiopia's war with Eritrea, Asamenew Tsige, caused a stir last week when he told the court he had lost the sight in one eye during a prison beating. The defendants were reported to have stood up in unison and shouted, "Let us be heard'.
But the judges refused to hear the charges, saying they were a matter for police to investigate.
When the trial resumed Thursday, scores of federal police officers lined the walls of the courtroom to keep order. Judge Adam Ibrahim warned defendants and observers against emotional outbursts.
Defense attorneys say they will appeal the verdict.