Ethiopia Drops Charges Against Journalists

By LES NEUHAUS Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An Ethiopia court Wednesday dropped charges of treason, attempted genocide and other crimes against 18 people, including five Voice of America journalists, accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
The United States had pressed Ethiopia to drop charges against the Voice of America journalists. VOA is an arm of the U.S. government.
Judge Adil Ahmed of the Federal High Court ordered the release of nine people and told the court in the capital, Addis Ababa, that charges against the others, who were being tried in absentia, also should be dropped.
However, the case will continue against 111 opposition leaders, aid workers and journalists on charges stemming from the violence that erupted in November during protests over disputed May 15 elections that returned Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power.
Chief Prosecutor Shemelis Kemal told the court that one of the seven counts all the defendants face _ the capital offense of threatening political integrity of the nation _ has been dropped.
Some of the accused have been in prison since Nov. 1, when the government started a crackdown on independent media, opposition politicians and human rights activists after at least 46 people were killed in clashes with security forces.
In similar protests in June, 42 people died.
VOA journalists Nigussie Mengesha, Addisu Abebe, Tizita Belachew, Adanech Fessehaye and Solomon Kifle were all charged in absentia because they are based in Washington.
Charges also were dropped against two teenage boys. They are expected to be released by Thursday.
International human rights groups have condemned the trial, arguing that the charges against the government critics were politically motivated.
The prisoners included the leadership of the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy; human rights activist Mesfin Woldemariam; a former prosecutor in the U.N. tribunal for Rwanda; and a former high court judge.
The defendants have refused to recognize the authority of the court and appeared Wednesday wearing black in protest over the ongoing hearings.
The next hearing is scheduled for May 2, when the prosecution is expected to being its case.

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