An Ethiopian court has jailed a journalist for 18 years for "terrorism" and 23 other reporters and activists for between eight years and life, after a trial condemned by rights groups.
Journalist Eskinder Nga was jailed for 18 years, while opposition member Andualem Arage got a life sentence as both men were found guilty of "participation in a terrorist organisation" and "planning...(a) terrorist act", Judge Hussein Yimer said on Friday.
Ethiopia, a major recipient of Western aid, has said it is fighting separatist rebel movements and armed groups backed by its arch-foe Eritrea.
But rights groups say the Horn of Africa country, sandwiched between volatile Somalia and Sudan, is using broad anti-terrorism legislation to crack down on dissent and media freedoms.
Andualem was also found guilty of serving as a "leader or decision maker of a terrorist organisation".
The life sentence was without the possibility of parole, the judge added. Eskinder was convicted of working with the outlawed Ginbot 7 group, considered a terrorist group under Ethiopian law.
"He (Eskinder) has been working with the Ginbot 7 organisation...," which had aggravated his sentence, the judge added.
"After taking into consideration how the criminal offence was committed, the court decided on 18 years imprisonment without parole."
Judges found the 24 defendants guilty of terrorism charges last month. Although 16 of them were convicted in absentia, having fled into exile, both Eskinder and Andualem were in court on Friday to hear their sentence.
Dressed in suits, they waved to family members as they filed into the court room, filled with friends and family of the activists, as well as journalists and diplomats.
Andualem, a member of the opposition party the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), smiled tightly and bowed his head when handed his sentence.
Defence lawyer Abebe Guta said his clients had not received a fair trial.
"In my personal opinion, we rebutted the prosecution's evidence beyond reasonable doubt, I think it's been not reasonably considered," he told reporters.
Eskinder would appeal the sentence, he said, adding that Andualem and his other clients were also considering filing appeals, which they have 45 days to do.
Exiled opposition leader Berhanu Nega, was also jailed for life on charges of treason in the aftermath of 2005's disputed parliamentary election, but was later pardoned.
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|William A. Cook|
|Timothy V. Gatto|