June 16, 2007

Convictions in Ethiopia Trials Condemned by Amnesty International


June 15, 2007

(New York) -- Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) condemns the recent convictions in Ethiopia of 38 opposition party members, journalists and a human rights defender on charges that could carry life in prison or the death penalty.

"We are deeply concerned about the fairness of political trials in Ethiopia and call on the government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience," said Lynn Fredriksson, advocacy director for Africa for AIUSA.

The defendants were convicted on June 11 after a 14 month trial by the Federal High Court of Ethiopia. The group included Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, founder and first president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, who has been a "special focus" case for AIUSA. The individuals were arrested in November 2005 in connection with demonstrations against alleged election fraud. The demonstrations started peacefully but ended violently with soldiers and police killing 193 demonstrators.

Others include Dr. Berhanu Nega, elected Mayor of Addis Ababa and an economics professor, and Dr. Yacob Hailemariam, retired Norfolk State University law professor and former U.N. prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The defendants refused to defend themselves insisting that their arrests, charges, detention and trials were politically motivated and that the trial was not likely to be fair. They were convicted on the basis of the prosecution evidence and prevented from making a statement in court after the prosecution case ended. The judge ruled that they had not submitted a defense and were guilty as charged, giving no reason for the sudden verdict. They were recalled to court for July 9.

The main count against the 38 individuals pertained to "outrages against the constitution." They could be sentenced to life in prison or given the death penalty when sentenced, which is expected in the coming weeks.

Ten co-defendants, including two civil society activists, Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie, chose to defend themselves through counsel; they are expected to start presenting their defense on June 18.

AIUSA has in the past criticized the arrests and detentions of these and other individuals since December 2005 at Kaliti Prison, and their conditions of detention. AIUSA has been deeply concerned about the fairness of political trials in Ethiopia.

To view Amnesty International's full report on the trials, please click here

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