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Thursday, December 29, 2005

129 Opposition Activists Remanded in Custody

allAfrica via IRIN -- A Federal High Court judge remanded 129 opposition leaders, journalists, civil society members and a 15-year-old boy into custody on Wednesday, pending a ruling on their bail applications for charges ranging from treason to genocide.

The charges are related to violent demonstrations in Ethiopia in November when crowds took to the streets to protest against the alleged rigging of elections held on 15 May. At least 46 people died in fighting between security forces and the demonstrators.

Chief Judge Adil Ahmed said the defendants, who could face life imprisonment or the death penalty if convicted, would be held for a further seven days while their bail applications were considered.

Another defendant, 14, will undergo a medical test to determine his age before he can be charged. Under Ethiopian law someone 14 years old is a juvenal.

Almost all defence lawyers boycotted the court hearing to protest against the refusal by prison authorities to let them meet their clients.

Prosecutors told the court that the protests caused damages worth US $110 million and that opposition leaders were responsible for the deaths of 34 people. Prosecutors added that Tigranians, who form an ethnic minority group and perceived to be the holders of power in the country, were victims of stoning and arson.

"It is unacceptable to release them on bail because the majority of the charges include 15 years imprisonment, the death penalty or life sentence," Abraham Tetemke, a prosecutor, said.

However, the defendants have maintained they are political prisoners. They have also been charged with attempting to subvert the constitution, an offence punishable by life imprisonment or death.

Ninety-four of the accused, including the two teenage boys, face genocide charges while 42 are charged with high treason. Other offences include conspiracy and armed uprising. Two of the original 131 defendants were released by the court to face separate charges. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said some 3,000 people will face charges for the disturbances.

About 80 defendants were present in the packed courtroom, including Hailu Shawel, a top leader of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, and human rights activist Mesfin Woldemariam.

Former judges, teachers, lawyers, hairdressers and students were among those charged. Some 32 people who are living in exile will be tried in absentia.

Mass arrests occurred during political unrest that claimed the lives of at least 46 people in November. Another 42 died people in June in similar demonstrations. Nearly 9,000 people were freed without charge.

A crackdown against the independent media, opposition politicians and civil and human rights activists began on 1 November as demonstrations raged.

The main opposition party has accused authorities of rigging the polls that returned the ruling party to power.

Related News: 'Lawyers Denied' in Ethiopia case

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