updated 7/20/2007 7:19:41 PM ET 2007-07-20T23:19:41

Ethiopia freed 38 opposition members Friday following international condemnation of the two-year case and the country's history of human rights abuses.

The pardons came after the United States urged Ethiopia — a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa — to show clemency. The defendants had been held since 2005 in connection with deadly election protests.

The politicians and activists left prison in a convoy of minibuses minutes after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced they had been pardoned, sparking cheers and whistles from dozens of opposition supporters outside Kaliti Prison.

"I hope this conveys the message that people are given a second chance as long as they seek it," Meles said.

The defendants, who sent formal apologies to the government seeking pardons, were sentenced this week to prison terms, including life, for inciting violence in an attempt to overthrow Meles' administration. Prosecutors had been pushing for the death penalty.

Hailu Shawel, leader of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, was defiant after his release, saying he signed the apology under duress.

"I don't even call it a trial," Hailu said Friday from his home, where relatives were celebrating. "It was a show."

Not a 'banana republic'
Meles denied that his country was acting on U.S. orders to free the opposition members. Ethiopia is a close American ally in the Horn of Africa, an area that U.S. officials say is a haven for al-Qaida. Ethiopia sent troops to neighboring Somalia in December, providing vital military aid to oust a radical Islamic movement accused of links to the terror group.

"Ethiopia, this government and this country, are incapable, unwilling and unable to be run like some kind of banana republic from Capitol Hill or anywhere else," Meles said.

Those pardoned Friday include Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 but was unable to serve because he was sent to jail; former Harvard scholar Mesfin Woldemariam; and former U.N. special envoy and a former professor at Virginia's Norfolk State University, Yacob Hailemariam.

The opposition won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats in the 2005 vote, but not enough to topple Meles. The opposition claimed the voting was rigged, and European Union observers said they were marred by irregularities.

'They don't change'
Late last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud but insisted they did not use excessive force. A senior judge appointed to investigate the violence had accused the security forces of excessive force.

"They (the government) are worse than they were two years ago," Hailu said. "They don't change, these people. They want to cover their loses. They know they lost an election. We know we won."

Initially, the opposition leaders, journalists and others were charged with treason, inciting violence and attempted genocide. Judges dropped the treason and attempted genocide charges in April and later that month freed 25 prisoners, among them eight journalists.

'Casts a shadow'
Earlier this week in Washington, a House subcommittee completed work on legislation that decries Ethiopia's recent human rights record and opens the door for sanctions. The subcommittee's approval would be a first major step, but the bill still would have to be passed by both houses and signed by President George W. Bush.

On Tuesday, Barry F. Lowenkron, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, gave sometimes harsh testimony on Ethiopia before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

He spoke of the illegal detention of "opposition leaders and tens of thousands of their supporters" and said: "To this day, the crackdown casts a shadow over the Ethiopian government."

Lowenkron said he had spent 85 minutes of a 90-minute conversation with Meles in March discussing the state of democracy in Ethiopia, and Meles said he would make changes "because it's in the interest of the people of Ethiopia."

"I told him it should be in the interest of all the people of Ethiopia, including those that are in prison and need to be let out," Lowenkron said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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