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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian judge freed 25 journalists on Monday charged in a treason trial involving more than 100 opposition figures that has drawn international criticism as being politically motivated.
"The prosecution has not proved the charges leveled against the 25 journalists," presiding Judge Adil Ahmed told the court, before ordering prison authorities to free them immediately. The journalists could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lead prosecutor Shimeles Kemal told Reuters he had some reservations about the ruling and "may consider an appeal on certain issues."
The judge also ordered the leaders of the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, to give their defense against the prosecution's case against them. They have so far refused to cooperate with a case they say is political.
In a case that has outraged human rights groups, opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists were charged in December 2005 with treason, inciting violence and attempting to commit genocide.
The charges followed two separate outbreaks of violence in which at least 80 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces over 2005 general election results, which the opposition says were rigged.
The judge dropped the genocide and treason charges last week, saying the prosecution had failed to prove its case.
One of those whose release was ordered last week, Addis Ababa Teacher's Association head Kasahun Kabede was the first prisoner freed on Monday.
"I feel delighted. I have been in prison for a year and a half," Kasashun said after leaving Kaliti prison. "That's all I want to say at the moment. Tonight we are going to have a big celebration - it's our culture."
The crackdown tarnished Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's democratic credentials and prompted donors, including Britain and the European Union, to halt direct budgetary aid to sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous nation.
Of 131 people first charged, 45 have now been acquitted and 36 are being tried in absentia. Under Ethiopian law, convicted defendants could face the death penalty if genocide is proven.
Meles has said the opposition incited the violence after the elections to overthrow his government.