ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia on Friday freed 38 opposition members sentenced to jail this week for treason, inciting violence and trying to overthrow the government, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said.
Rights groups and donor governments complained the trial was politically motivated and an attempt to dismantle the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) after they made strong gains at May 2005 elections that spawned deadly protests.
"The pardon is total. They are being freed with their constitutional rights restored. They have committed themselves to adhere (to) and respect the rule of law as well as the constitution of the country," Meles told a press conference.
"They are being released as I speak."
An Ethiopian court on Monday rejected a prosecution attempt to sentence the CUD leaders to death, and handed life sentences to 35 of them. Eight other defendants were given sentences of between 18 months and 18 years.
The sentences following a nearly two-year-long trial were immediately met with criticism from rights groups. The United States, a close ally of Meles, urged clemency.
The defendants were tried after two post-election bouts of violence in which 199 people were killed, 800 wounded and 30,000 arrested, according to a parliamentary inquiry.
"We believe that the sorry saga of the orange revolution is fully behind us," Meles said.
The return of their constitutional rights means the imprisoned CUD members, among them elected legislators and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, can run for election again.
It was not immediately clear if those who had won seats would be able to take them after their release. They were due to be released from Kaliti prison on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday.
"The decision to pardon the CUD members also conveys that there is no sense of revenge by the government," Meles said.
Meles denied influence from Washington, which considers Ethiopia its strongest counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa, had played any role.
"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," Meles said.
It was not immediately clear whether the remaining people convicted in the case, among them opposition members, journalists and rights activists, would be pardoned.
The government has said the clemency appeal of the remaining prisoners out of the 72 convicted would follow, as well as those who are in exile and were tried in absentia.
The Ethiopian government completed the clemency appeal in just five days after the CUD leaders sent a letter admitting their guilt and pledging to respect the law.
The government made the letter public on state television on Monday, hours after the sentences were handed down. The CUD has never confirmed in public the authenticity of the letter, which the government said was received by Meles three weeks ago.