Ethiopia freed 38 opposition members following international condemnation of the two-year case and the country's history of human rights abuses.
The pardons came on Friday, after the US urged Ethiopia -- a key US 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."
Meles denied that his country was acting on US orders to free the opposition members. Ethiopia is a close US ally in the Horn of Africa, an area that US officials say is a haven for al-Qaeda. 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 UN special envoy 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 EU observers said they were marred by irregularities.
Late last year, Ethiopia acknowledged that its security forces killed 193 civilians protesting alleged election fraud but insisted they did not use excessive force.
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