A Bucknell University professor was sentenced yesterday to death in absentia by an Ethiopian court that convicted him of plotting to assassinate government officials.

Berhanu Nega, of Lewisburg, an associate professor of economics at the Union County school, was one of five people to receive death sentences for planning the attack in 2005 when nearly 200 people were killed in postelection violence.

Nega, 51, denied the charges and called the sentence an expected move of a terrorist government.

"By delivering this sentence they are trying to terrorize the population more than anything else," Nega said in a phone interview. "It is their way of telling everybody if you fight for democracy we will kill you, that is the message they are sending."

Nega said he was at home preparing to take his teenage son to a driving test when he received a phone call with the news.

Nega, an exiled opposition leader of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005.

He was the first elected mayor in Ethiopia's history, but the ruling party declared victory, and Nega was among 100 opposition leaders arrested and jailed. Nega was held in prison for 21 months.

"At one point I was in one cell with 350 people," Nega said. "There was no air to breathe, and I developed a heart condition because of that."

Since his release, he has urged the United States and other Western countries to back democratic movements in Ethiopia and withdraw support for dictatorships.

Born near Addis Ababa, Nega immigrated to the United States in 1980. He earned his bachelor's degree in economics from the State University of New York at New Paltz and his doctorate in economics at the New School for Social Research in New York.

He joined the faculty at Bucknell in 1990, but commuted to Philadelphia for three years while his wife, Nardos Minasse, studied at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.

Nega and his family returned to Ethiopia in 1994 because "we thought maybe there would be a chance to serve and help our country," he said. Nega became active in the democratic movement, taught at Addis Ababa University, and was elected mayor in 2005.

During Nega's imprisonment, supporters including Bucknell president Brian C. Mitchell and university faculty members called for his release, said Tom Evelyn, a spokesman for the university.

"He is a professor in good standing at Bucknell and has a long track record of being a distinguished scholar," Evelyn said.

Nega and others eventually were pardoned and freed. Nega and his family returned to Pennsylvania in August 2007, and the professor resumed teaching at Bucknell. Last week, the Ethiopian government revoked Nega's pardon.

Nega is one of four people sentenced to death yesterday who are living in exile, Nega said. The other is jailed in Ethiopia, Nega said. A sentence of life in prison was ordered for 33 others.

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.