updated 4/9/2007 6:42:27 PM ET 2007-04-09T22:42:27

An Ethiopian judge on Monday acquitted 25 opposition supporters and journalists who faced charges of attempted genocide and treason stemming from violence that erupted during protests over disputed 2005 elections.

Federal High Court Judge Adil Ahmed said the prosecution had failed to prove the charges, part of an ongoing trial of 131 opposition leaders, aid workers and union members. The defendants could have faced life in prison or the death penalty.

The proceedings have been widely condemned by international human rights groups as an attempt to silence Ethiopian government critics.

"There is no evidence against them," the judge said before ordering the eight journalists and 17 members of the main opposition party freed immediately.

The defendants, who had been in custody for 15 months, have always claimed the trial was politically motivated and refused to defend themselves or cooperate with the court. Among them was a reporter who gave birth in prison and editors and owners of opposition newspapers. They were not immediately available for comment.

Charges of treason and attempted genocide were also dropped against the remaining 66 defendants, who include elected lawmakers and the mayor-elect of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. They still face charges including attempting to overthrow the government, which carry possible punishments of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

So far, 62 people have been acquitted, including Monday's defendants, while three opposition members have been found guilty in absentia of attempting to overthrow the government.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has repeatedly stated that the opposition was trying to overthrow his government by force.

Meles returned to power in a May 2005 election the opposition claimed was rigged and European Union observers said was marred by irregularities. He was first elected prime minister in 1995, although he had been the de-facto ruler of Ethiopia since 1991 when rebels ousted a military junta.

Nearly 200 killed after vote
An independent Ethiopian investigation found 193 demonstrators and six policemen were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces that erupted after the vote, sparking a massive opposition crackdown.

Opposition activists were charged with genocide because they were accused of targeting the Tigrayan ethnic group, to which the ruling party and Meles belong. Tigrayans are from the north of the country and make up fewer than one in 10 of Ethiopia's 77 million people.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International has called the defendants "prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence."

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