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Treason trial of 129 opponents begins

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- The trial of 129 lawmakers, journalists and human rights activists on treason charges opened yesterday with all but three defendants defiantly refusing to enter a plea.

"We don't want to defend ourselves because the trial's over. The prime minister has already given the ruling; punishment is the death penalty," said Birtukan Mideksa, the second-ranking officer of the outlawed Coalition for Unity (CUD) and Democracy party.

Mrs. Mideksa had barely spoken when the microphone was taken away.

The charges relate to demonstrations after May 2005 elections, which the opposition says were stolen by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. More than 80 people are thought to have died in the protests, mainly at the hands of police.

Mr. Meles, in an interview with The Washington Times on Tuesday, dismissed charges by the opposition and human rights activists with a string of expletives.

He said the suspects "planned to carry out attacks on certain buildings and public persons around Addis Ababa."

The trial opening yesterday marked the fifth appearance for many of the 91 defendants who were present. Some, including reporters for the Voice of America, are being tried in absentia.

Most were arrested in November on charges that include "conspiring against the Constitution," which is a capital crime under Ethiopian law.

Thirty-eight defendants, including five Ethiopian Americans employed by Voice of America, were charged in absentia.

The journalists are in Washington, according to U.S. officials, who say they have not been able to learn the details of the charges.

Charges against two of 131 dissenters expected to go on trial have been dropped, Agence France-Presse reported.

The trial has attracted considerable attention in a country where the Tigrean ethnic minority dominates the government.

The opposition CUD consists mainly of the country's largest, Amharic-speaking ethnic group.

The better-known defendants include the publisher of three Amharic newspapers, the founder of Ethiopia's first human rights organization, the mayor of Addis Ababa and a former prosecutor for the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal for Rwanda.

The prosecution accuses the defendants of trying to "entice the population for armed struggle with the purpose of seizing power unlawfully by diverting the democratic process."

Diplomats from a dozen Western nations, including the United States, have attended open hearings of the trial, which is being monitored by legal analysts from the International Federation for Human Rights.

All the defendants have been denied bail, including a half-dozen political figures in their 60s and 70s.

Berhanu Nega, a former economics professor in the United States who was elected the mayor of Addis Ababa before he was arrested, complained in court about the conditions in Kaliti prison.

He said that the defendants were led to court in handcuffs, that guards had taken away their clothing and that they recently had been moved into dorms with hundreds of others.

An attorney for three human rights advocates unsuccessfully sought to have charges against his clients thrown out, saying the formal charges contain no details of dates, places or activities that occurred.

Presiding Judge Adil Ahmed rejected the argument, saying details of the charges will emerge later. The three entered not-guilty pleas.

After the 21/2-hour court session, the defendants were led to buses with blackened windows to return to prison.

Their families, assembled in the back of the courtroom, rushed to its glass doors, waving frantically to loved ones and sometimes weeping.