EARLIER this year, Ethiopian courts released many of the country's most important political dissidents from the grim Kaliti jail on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. They had been there since they were rounded up by police following opposition protests (in which 193 people were killed) against flawed presidential elections in 2005. In another promising sign of reconciliation, charges against the 38 remaining defendants were reduced from treason and genocide to “outrage against the constitution” and “incitement to armed rebellion".
So it was a real shock this week when the state prosecutor called for all 38 to be put to death. Those facing the firing squad include Hailu Shawel, the elderly head of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the main opposition party, and Berhanu Nega, the elected mayor of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Surely not, say queasy diplomats, aid types and even many in the Ethiopian government. The prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has made some progress in building infrastructure, tackling poverty and attracting foreign investment. He has even managed to turn himself into a close ally of America by invading Somalia last December to vanquish the Islamist regime in Mogadishu, suspected of harbouring al-Qaeda people. The last thing Mr Zenawi needs now is the terrible publicity, especially in America, that such executions would bring.
The judge adjourned sentencing until later this month. Even if a death sentence is handed down, a carefully worded apology by the dissidents could let them walk free. Mr Zenawi would probably go along with that. There is now almost as much that unites the government and the opposition as divides them. Some back his invasion of Somalia; many others agree on the threats posed by Eritrea, Islamist terrorism and separatist groups within Ethiopia.
But Ethiopians are stubborn. Most of the 38 dissidents have refused even to recognise the court's legitimacy or to offer a defence. They may be unwilling to sign an apology. Then there is the government's instinct for brutality. In spasms, it has muzzled, beaten and jailed the opposition since the elections of 2005. Thousands of young Ethiopians were sent to prison camps. The press has been stamped on.
All of this puts the United States in a quandary. Ethiopia, despite its human-rights record, is a key ally against terrorism. America backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. Now it is pressing Mr Zenawi urgently to let the dissidents go free.