ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An Ethiopian court sentenced five people to death — including an Ethiopian professor teaching at a U.S. university — and 33 to life in prison Tuesday for being members of a terror group and conspiring to assassinate government officials.
Those convicted have been accused of being members of the Ginbot 7 — May 15 in the Ethiopian calendar — which refers to Ethiopia’s election day in 2005 when postelection violence killed close to 200 people.
Among those sentenced to death was Berhanu Nega, an exiled opposition leader who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005. But Berhanu, currently an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, dismissed the legitimacy of the court and its sentence.
“This is what the government wanted in order to continue terrorizing the population, and there is nothing more to it than that,” he said Tuesday. “For those of us who know this government, there is no surprise.”
Three of the other five sentenced to death are also living in exile outside Ethiopia; one is in custody.
The prosecution asked the court to impose severe penalties because many of the accused were members of the army. Many of those convicted were expected to appeal.
All but two of the defendants in Ethiopian custody have proclaimed their innocence. Two defendants cooperated with the prosecution and were sentenced to 10 years.
Berhanu and more than 100 other opposition politicians were arrested after the 2005 election and put on trial for treason. Berhanu and others were pardoned and freed after 20 months, but the government last week revoked Berhanu’s pardon — and that’s when Berhanu knew that further action would be taken against him, he said Tuesday.
According to a Bucknell University article on Berhanu, the economics professor was a leader in the democratic opposition in Ethiopia after returning there in the mid-1990s. In 2005, he become the first elected mayor in Ethiopia’s history with 75 percent of the vote, but the ruling party declared victory in races throughout the country.
“Thus ended the Ethiopian democratic experiment that had started with such high hopes, leaving the country in the darkness of totalitarian rule,” Berhanu said during a talk on campus last year.
Berhanu was jailed after the election and released after 20 months in July 2007. Since his release, he has urged the U.S. and other Western countries to back democratic movements in Ethiopia and withdraw support for dictatorships.
Opposition politicians have for months been pointing to signs of increased oppression in Ethiopia, notably the harassment and arrest of thousands of their candidates in 2008’s local elections that they believe allowed the ruling party to sweep the elections.