Friday, December 5, 2008

Ethiopia's biggest pop star jailed for hit-and-run

Fri 5 Dec 2008, 14:43 GMT
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By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA, Dec 5 (Reuters Life!) - Ethiopia's best-known pop star, Teddy Afro, was sentenced to six years in jail on Friday for killing a homeless man when driving his BMW in the capital Addis Ababa.

The 31-year-old singer, whose real name is Tewodros Kassahun, was found guilty of manslaughter earlier this week for the death of 18-year-old Degu Yibelte in a hit-and-run incident late last year.

Afro denied the charge and said he was out with friends on the night the man died.

Many Ethiopians believe the charges were politically motivated. Last month's Great Ethiopian Run -- a road race for more than 30,000 people through the capital -- was marked by constant shouts from the crowd of "Free Teddy".

The singer is hugely popular among young Ethiopians and sings mainly in the local Amharic language. Hundreds protested outside the court when Afro's trial began in April -- an unusual event in a country where dissent is extremely rare.

Afro's last album, Yasteseryal (Redemption), coincided with Ethiopia's 2005 election that led to violent protests and the jailing of opposition leaders.

Some of his lyrics were construed as critical of the government and his songs were used as protest anthems by opposition supporters who took to the streets.

"This court will not hand out a sentence based on a vendetta but based on fairness and justice," Judge Leul Gebremariam said before sending Afro to jail and fining him $1,800.

On streets nearby young Ethiopians gathered in small groups to discuss the sentencing.

"All Ethiopians will be sad today," said Mikias Sisay, a 23-year-old student. "Many people have accidents but are not sent to prison like this. It is because of politics."

A defiant Afro -- wearing his trademark black sunglasses -- raised one finger in the air to a smattering of applause from friends and family when he walked from the courtroom.

"I feel free," he said to reporters as he was led away by police.

(Editing by David Clarke and Michael Roddy)

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