INTERNATIONAL NEWS - 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."
Endeshaw said Eskinder abused his freedom of speech, using it to "undermine security."
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," 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 verdict "seemed to be a foregone conclusion" and 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, who in May was honoured with the "freedom to write" award by the US-based press watchdog PEN, was jailed in 2005 following national elections.
He was convicted of treason alongside his wife, who gave birth to their son in jail. Both were acquitted in 2007 and were ordered not to work as journalists.
Eskinder continued writing a blog and remained critical of the government.
Rights groups have accused Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law for being vague and used to quash freedom of speech and peaceful political dissent.
In December, two Swedish journalists were found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
According to the press freedom group, Committee to Protect Journalists, which condemned Wednesday's conviction, Ethiopia has one of the most restricted media in the world.
"The Ethiopian government has once again succeeded in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.
"The charges against Eskinder are baseless and politically-motivated in reprisal for his writings," he added.
The courtroom was filled with family members, journalists and diplomats, including US Ambassador Donald Booth.