July 20, 2007

Breaking News: Ethiopia Releases Protest Leaders

Ethiopia releases protest leaders
(Left to right): Human rights activist Mesfin Woldermariam and the opposition CUD's Birtukan Midek, Berhanu Nega and leader Hailu Shawel. File photo
The group had reportedly confessed and asked for a pardon
Thirty Ethiopian opposition leaders have been pardoned and freed from prison just days after being given life sentences over election protests.

Three minibuses have reportedly left the prison while the group's supporters whistled and shouted for joy outside.

The group always said the trial was political and refused to enter a plea, leading to the men's conviction.

Ethiopia came under strong international pressure over the trial, and some donors cut aid.

But Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi denied that he was following US orders to free the 30 Coalition for Unity and Democracy leaders and six others convicted over the protests.

"The Ethiopian government isn't willing and is unable to be run like a banana republic from Capitol Hill. Some individuals appear to be entertaining such illusions," he said.

In court:
Life in jail: 30 opposition leaders
15-18 years: 6 young men for rioting
1-3 years: 2 journalists
In absentia:
Life in jail: 5

He also said that some of the international pressure had been "shameful".

Among the 30 are CUD leader Hailu Shawel, the mayor-elect of the Addis Ababa Berhanu Nega and several other MPs and councillors from the capital.

Five others were convicted in absentia.

'Orange revolution'

Mr Meles also said their rights to vote and contest elections would be restored.

But he said the MPs had boycotted parliament for two years and so may be unable to reclaim their seats now.

Doctors treating injured protesters
Most of those who died were protesters
The government had said the 30 had confessed to their crimes and had asked for a pardon.

The head of the European Union 2005 election observers in Ethiopia had condemned the life sentences as "farcical" and "inhumane".

After the state prosecutor called for the death penalty, the US urged the government to "promote reconciliation" in the final sentence.

The government always said it could not interfere in the case until the legal process had finished.

Some 193 people died after thousands of people protested against the election results.

Most of those were protesters, killed by the security forces.

Tens of thousands of people were arrested.

"We believe that the sorry saga of the orange revolution is fully behind us," Mr Meles said.

The government denied charges of ballot-rigging and points out that it introduced multi-party elections to Ethiopia.

BBC News

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