An appeal made by leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), many of whom were sentenced to life in prison, is under review by a board that is constitutionally mandated to such responsibilities, said the Prime Minister's Office on Monday night, July 16, 2007. The announcement was made the same day the Federal High Court, First Criminal Bench, sentenced 35 CUD leaders to life imprisonment.
The state television has shown on Monday night a copy of the appeal signed by CUD leaders who are behind bars on June 22, 2007, that was sent to the Prime Minister's Office. The newscaster read the content of the two-paragraph appeal; CUD leaders have claimed individual and collective responsibilities for "an attempt to forcefully oust a constitutionally installed government" thus taking the blame for the subsequent violence that resulted in human and property loss. They have asked for an apology from "the government and the public", according to what was read on the national TV.
The full text of their appeal was published on the state Amharic daily, Addis Zemen, which listed the names of 66 CUD "leaders and members" and six journalists.
"We ask for understanding from the Ethiopian government and people that we regret the mistakes committed and ask for forgiveness as is customary in our country's culture," reads the appeal.
It was the climax of one of the thorniest issues of contemporary Ethiopian politics. Following the electoral violence of November 2005, the government arrested over 100 CUD leaders, publishers, editors and workers of Action Aid Ethiopia, accusing them of fomenting civil unrest to bring the government down. CUD leaders claimed they fought "peacefully and within the bounds of the law" so that the votes of the public are respected. They accused the ruling party of tampering with the results of the May 2005 national elections in order to turn the results to its favour.
Many of the CUD leaders, however, refused to defend their cases when the government prosecuted them at the Federal High Court, charged them with seven counts, including treason and attempted genocide. These two charges were dropped later on; the prosecution decided to press on its charges of outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order, an offence that may lead to capital punishment.
While 11 of the defendants, including Daniel Bekele and Nestanet Asfaw, staff members of Action Aid Ethiopia, as well as Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of a weekly Amharic, Hadar, decided to defend themselves against the charges - the case is still under litigation - the Federal High Court, presided by Judge Adil Ahmed, convicted many of the CUD leaders of the charges three weeks ago. To the shock of many, the three-member prosecution team, led by Shimeles Kemal, appealed for capital punishment. It was, however, Abraham Tetemke, who read the prosecution's opinions for sentencing, and appealed for the defendants to be punished by death.
The Court, however, resorted to sentence the defendants to life imprisonment taking into account "the dangerous disposition of the defendants, as well as the gravity of the crime and the circumstances of its conduct", according to Judge Adil.
"Based on the evidences that were brought to the Court, what the defendants had instigated resulted in the loss of life on the security forces, injury to many and damage to public property," said the Presiding Judge. "These showed the gravity of the crime."
Judge Adil said that the fact that the "educational background of many of the defendants is higher and their ignorance on the consequences of their attempts to dismantle the constitutional order" should be reasons for the Court to sentence them to capital punishment. However, the presiding judge said the defendants were charged for "an attempt" and not "committing it" were reasons why the Court passed the sentence in life imprisonment.
"In the case of an attempted crime, the convicted is liable to the punishment attaching to the crime he intended to commit," the presiding judge said, quoting the 2005 Criminal Code. "If circumstances so justify, the Court may reduce the punishment within the limits provided by the law."
The life imprisonment included Hailu Shawel and Birtukan Midiksa, president and first vice president of the CUD, Brehanu Nega (PhD), meant to be mayor of Addis Abeba provided that his party was to take the city government, and Mesfin Woldemariam (professor), a human rights activist. The court passed similar sentences on four newspaper editors-in-chief: Andualem Ayele, Mesfin Tesfaye, Abiy Gizaw and Zelalam Gebere of Ethiop, Abay, Nestanet and Menelik, respectively.
The Court also looked into the cases of other six defendants, who were charged for "leading, organising and participating" in the riots of November 2005 in Addis Abeba, particularly in Shiro Meda, Kirikos and Addis Ketema areas. Out of the six convicted, four of them were sentenced to serve 18 years rigorous imprisonment, while two them were sentenced to 15 years.
Many of them were also barred from participating in public political life.
The shortest prison term was given to Dawit Fasil, deputy editor of the weekly Satenaw, who is also a brother to the publisher, Serkalem Fasil; he was sentenced to serve 18 months in jail. Woenakseged Zeleke, editor-in-chef of the Amharic weekly Asqual, one of the three weeklies Serkalem used to publish, including Menelik, was sentenced to three years.
Although Serkalem did not appear before the Federal High Court on Monday, her company was fined 120,000 Br; the Court also passed a sentence to dissolve the publisher.
She was not the only publisher to have met this fate.
Sisay Agena, publisher of the Amharic weeklies, Ethiop and Abay, has been sentenced to pay 100,000 Br fine, while his company has been sentenced to be dissolved. Fasil Yenealem, publisher of the weekly Addis Zena, has received a fine of 15,000 Br. Both Sisay and Fasil were not inside the Court when the sentence was made against their businesses.
Not too many people in Addis were surprised about the news that CUD leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment, compared to the high anticipation on the arrangement and circumstances of their release. This was an issue that has been a subject of public discussion in the past year, with the news that four eminent personalities, led by Ephrem Isaac (Professor), have been labouring for too long now to secure their release. A deal seems in the corner, following the signed appeal by CUD leaders, admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness. The appeal was copied to the conciliators.
Provided that the government will accord them an amnesty, it will not be the first for the serving President, Girma W. Giorgis, who is constitutionally mandated to grant it. Over 200 inmates were granted presidential pardon almost a year ago, an act taken by the EPRDF government for the first time in its hold of political power in Ethiopia since 1991.