ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A group of more than two dozen Ethiopian Muslims pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges of terrorism.
Federal prosecutors are accusing the group, which includes prominent clerics and journalists, with terrorism and attempts to create an Islamic state that would undermine the country's secular constitution. Among the 28 pleading not guilty was the wife of a former senior Cabinet minister who was fired last month after publicly defending her. One defendant did not plead and instead said he was mentally unfit to stand trial.
"I have not committed any crimes but a crime has been committed against me," one defendant told the court.
The charges come amid running confrontations between authorities and Muslim protesters who accuse the government of unconstitutionally encouraging a moderate teaching of Islam called Al-Ahbash. Some of protests turned violent and eight people were killed in two spate incidents in regional towns.
The group of 29, through their 11 lawyers, had challenged the charges as unconstitutional. A three-judge panel at the country's federal court disagreed in a ruling read out Monday.
For over a year protesters at a mosque in the capital, Addis Ababa, have demanded that the government stop meddling in their religious affairs.
Right groups blame the government for the latest tension with the Muslim community. Amnesty International says the protests were first triggered when the state started "unconstitutionally meddling" in religious affairs and squashed peaceful protests with "excessive force." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has said the charges are part of an attempt to "crush" members of the opposition.
The Ethiopian government blames "extremists" for the ongoing protests.
"Despite the allegation of the USCIRF, it has consistently been the position of the government, both in theory and in practice, that religion is constitutionally excluded from the dominion of the state," the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The judges said the case would reconvene Jan. 22 to hear from the witnesses of the prosecution.