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Ethiopian Colleagues Released from Jail
July 20, 2007

This morning six scientific colleagues were among 38 Ethiopian opposition leaders released from prison. The group was officially pardoned by Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis, and their constitutional rights will be fully restored. The release of Befekadu Degefe (economist), Berhanu Nega (economist), Gizachew Shifferaw (chemical engineer), Hailu Shawel (civil engineer), Mesfin Woldemariam (geographer), Muluneh Eyual (economist), and the other opposition leaders came just five days after they were sentenced to life imprisonment and stripped for life of their right to vote or stand for election by Ethiopia’s high court on charges of “outrages again the constitution,” as well as, in some cases, “inciting an armed rebellion.” Their conviction on June 11 and then their sentencing on July 16 were met with widespread international condemnation. A day after the life sentences were handed down, the Ethiopian government stated that the 38 opposition leaders had signed an undisclosed statement asking for mercy and that the request for a pardon was being examined. The U.S. government (one of Ethiopia’s largest donors), among others, urged the Ethiopian government to show clemency in the case.

Background

Dr. Befekadu, Dr. Berhanu, Mr. Gizachew, Dr. Hailu, Dr. Mesfin, and Mr. Muluneh were among dozens of individuals detained in Ethiopia during the first week of November 2005, as large-scale demonstrations began against alleged election rigging in the May 2005 general elections. The leadership of the main opposition political party—Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD)—had called for a series of peaceful demonstrations that were to end with a five-day general strike to protest alleged election fraud by the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Although the protests were peaceful, when the police responded by shooting live ammunition into the crowds, violence erupted. (The security forces reportedly shot dead more than 100 civilians and wounded more than 200 others. Six police officers reportedly were killed as well.)

In December 2005 these six colleagues were among more than 100 Ethiopian politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society activists charged with a range of crimes in connection with the protests, most of which carried a death penalty. Charges against the six men, all of whom are CUD leaders, included inciting and organizing armed uprising, endangering the integrity of the state, high treason, and attempting genocide. The two most serious charges—attempted genocide and treason—were later dropped by the court because the prosecution failed to provide credible evidence. The trial began on May 2, 2006, more than a year ago. The CUD leaders were held in Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa under harsh conditions of confinement throughout their more than 20-month detention. Their cells were cold and damp, and hygiene and sanitary facilities were reported to be very poor. Professor Mesfin, Dr. Hailu, and Dr. Berhanu suffered from serious ill-health during their detention. All six colleagues were adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience incarcerated solely for peacefully expressing their political beliefs.