Ethiopia court finds 24 guilty of terrorism

Twenty-four Ethiopians, including a leading opposition figure and a prominent journalist, faced life in prison Wednesday after a court found them guilty on charges of terrorism.

"Guilty as charged," judge Endeshaw Adane said, referring to journalist Eskinder Nega, opposition member Andualem Arage and 22 others accused of links to US-based group Ginbot 7, considered a terrorist group under Ethiopian law, and other outlawed groups.

Under the anti-terrorism legislation, the defendants face the death sentence, but the prosecutor recommended life sentences for the 24, only eight of whom were present in court.

Both Eskinder and Andualem were found guilty of "participation in a terrorist organisation" and "planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act."

Andualem was also found guilty of serving as a "leader or decision maker of a terrorist organisation." Another less prominent opposition member was also among the group convicted Wednesday.

Endeshaw said Eskinder abused his freedom of speech and accused him of threatening national security.

"Freedom of speech can be limited when it used to undermine security and not used for the public interest," he said.

Both Eskinder and Andualem are accused of using examples of Arab Spring uprisings in the media to promote anti-government protest in Ethiopia.

"There is no way other than democratic elections to attain power in the country, and what they said is clearly against the constitution," Endeshaw said.

"By using the freedom of speech recognized in the constitution these criminals have been trying to destabilize the country... that is why the court should give a grave sentence," the prosecutor said.

Five of the defendants, including Eskinder and Andualem, will reappear in court on July 13 to present their mitigating circumstances.

Rights group Amnesty International condemned the verdict, and said the men were found guilty on "trumped up" charges.

"This is a dark day for justice in Ethiopia, where freedom of expression is being systematically destroyed by a government targeting any dissenting voice," Amnesty's Africa researcher Claire Beston, said in a statement.

Amnesty said the convicted were prisoners of conscience and said "the verdict seemed to be a foregone conclusion." The group called for the immediate release of the prisoners.

Andualem, who appeared in court in a suit and tie, tried to present his own mitigating circumstances to the judges.

"I have struggled for peaceful democracy, and I have never disrespected any individual and I didn't commit a crime. My conscience is clear," he said.

The judge promptly silenced him and said he was not following the court's procedure.

Eskinder insisted he deserved to speak since he is facing a serious sentence.

"You have to stand for justice, you have to allow us to say what we want... you have no right to limit our freedom of speech," he said to the judges.

The courtroom was filled with family members, journalists and diplomats, including US Ambassador Donald Booth.

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