Thirty five Ethiopian opposition leaders have been given life sentences for their role in the 2005 election protests that saw scores of people killed. Arjun Kohli reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi the court rejected prosecution recommendations for the death penalty.

The verdict for 35 life sentences was read by a panel of three judges in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Three other defendants received jail terms of between 18 months and 18 years.

Among the 35 men is the entire leadership the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, Brehanu Nega, and journalists.

The accused were tried for their alleged involvement in demonstrations two years ago in which hundreds of thousands of people protested the results of national elections.

The group was convicted for the deaths of state security forces and for destroying state property. They refused to defend themselves because they believed the trial was flawed.

Chief prosecutor Abraha Tetemke claimed the convicted men showed no remorse for their actions. Showing no regret, he said, is a punishable crime under Ethiopian law. The prosecution requested the death penalty for the men last week.

The leader of the opposition United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, Beyenne Petros, was relieved to be informed of the news that members of the group were not given the maximum sentence by the court.

But Petros says it is wrong for the government to be pursuing this group of people with such vigor. He described the life sentences as political repression.

"I know them and their political platform and discourse over the last 10 or so years," said Petros. "These are highly responsible, professional, well-meaning individuals who really sought to provide an alternative to the kind of political discourse that the ruling party has put on this country. This does not really reduce our indignation. This has been already too severe and uncalled for and would not help the situation at all."

EU observers say the 2005 legislative elections fell short of international standards and there were many complaints of fraud and discrepancies during protests that led to a military crackdown and the conviction of the opposition leaders.

Petros tells VOA his party believes the men should not have been taken to court at all, for they were involved in politics, not crime.

"That has been our position all along, in parliament as well as outside, this should be handled politically out of court," said Petros. "That is our position. This is sending a message to all of us, to all the opposition political parties that the ruling party and the government are ruling in the wrong way and we have to follow their defects."

"They did threaten us as well that they can always scratch a case against us. It might be a very bad indication of what the future has for opposition, for democratic movements in this country," he added.

Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country. It was ruled for more than 40 years by Emperor Haile Selassie, and then suffered under a military junta that was led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was later convicted of genocide by an Ethiopian court. After his conviction he fled to Zimbabwe, where he lives in exile.

In 1995 legislative elections were held and the country was renamed the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. It is dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, whose leader is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Ethiopian prosecutors said last week the life sentence imposed on the former leader, Mengistu, is inappropriate for genocide, and they requested the death sentence for him last week. Although the death sentence is legal in Ethiopia and several people have been convicted, no one has been executed since the 1990's.