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Addis Ababa - An Ethiopian court has sentenced 18 Muslim activists to up to 22 years in jail on terrorism-related charges stemming from allegations that the accused tried to create an Islamic state in Ethiopia using terrorism.

The defendants, who were given between seven and 22 years behind bars by the Ethiopian Federal High Court, had already been in custody for nearly three years and had been barred from some civic activities for five years.

Ethiopia has witnessed sporadic and at rare times deadly demonstrations since 2012, when a protest movement was started by a section of the Muslim community which alleged the government was promoting a heterodox, apolitical version of Islam called Ahbash.

The protest was also swelled by grievances that the government was interfering in the affairs and election of the Islamic Supreme Council (Majilis), the highest religious body for Ethiopian Muslims.

The Muslim community also demanded the reinstatement of the administrators of one of Ethiopia’s most prominent Islamic schools, Awoliya College and Secondary School, who were sacked by the government in December 2011. The government alleged that the school was a centre for rising, militant, hardline Salafist Islam.

The defendants alleged that they had been chosen by the aggrieved Muslim community members to represent their interests and mediate with the government.

Ethiopia’s Muslim community, which according to the 2006 Ethiopian census accounts for about a third of Ethiopia’s 94 million plus population, mainly follows moderate Sufi Islam, and is distributed across ethnic and regional lines.

The Ethiopian government, however, claims there is a rising threat of hardline Salafism in the country.