An Ethiopian court sentenced 18 prominent Muslim figures on Monday to up to 22 years of imprisonment on terrorism-related charges.

The defendants, accused of plotting terrorist attacks to form an Islamic state in Ethiopia, were arrested three years ago while trying to mediate the row between the Muslim community and the government.

The Muslim community has been staging a series of peaceful protests since 2011, accusing the government of imposing a foreign, allegedly moderate Islamic sect called Al Ahbash on its devout Sufi-Islam followers.  The protests started when the community opposed the government’s decision to close down Awoliya, the country’s sole Islamic college.

The accused, which include clerics and a journalist, were members of an ad hoc committee that sought solutions to these concerns of the Muslim population over alleged government interference in religious affairs.

After three years of court trial, four of the committee members were sentenced to 22 years in prison each, five members to 18 years, six to 15 years, and the remaining three to seven years.

“I didn’t expect this. The sentencing was simply too harsh,” said an exiled Ethiopian Muslim activist who goes by the pseudonym Aman Aman.  “I didn’t expect them to be released either, but I was anticipating a much lighter sentencing.”

Many Ethiopians on social media are expressing similar disbelief, as others take the incident as one more proof of the highly-criticized judicial system in the country.

“These trials are touchstones—they are microcosm of broader struggles in which one can see the nature of our government, about questions of responsibility, representation and rule of law, etc,” Awol Allo (PhD), a Fellow in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science, shared his thoughts on Facebook.

But the Ethiopian government says the committee members have an ulterior motive of radicalizing the Muslim community and of constituting an Islamic State through unconstitutional means. Many dispute these claims saying neither the committee leaders nor the protests were seen advocating for an Islamic government or violence.

“In my view, EPRDF [the ruling coalition since 1991] simply perceives any organized entity as a threat to its hold on power, be it a trade union, a religious gathering or a teacher’s association,” Aman told GIZEYAT. “I assume it sensed a threat in the recent Muslim revival in Ethiopia for which, ironically, many were grateful to EPRDF for providing a free space in contrast to its predecessor the Dergue which was generally anti-religion.”

Aman and many others who have been following the trial also cast doubt on the whole process, noting court hearings were often adjourned for meager reasons. They believe that the government has lingered the trial on purpose in hopes of quelling the movement, and perhaps expecting the committee leaders to eventually compromise on their demands.

None of that happened however, and now that it has all come to this some are worried what course the struggle would take henceforth.

“The Muslim community has shown incredible steadfastness and adhered to principles of non-violent struggle,” Aman said. But he fears the government’s latest move might push a very frustrated minority to be radicalized and stray away from the peaceful struggle. “That will be damaging both to the Muslim struggle, as well as to the country as a whole. It will also give the government an excuse to further crackdown on the Muslim community,” he said.

The Ethiopian Muslims most popular movement Dimstachin Yisema stated on its social media pages that the court rulings will give the Muslim community all the more reason to strengthen its movement. But it stressed to keep on the nonviolent struggle.

For Akemel Negash, one of the journalists exiled following the crackdown on the Muslim publication Ye Muslimoch Guday, the sentencing was nothing short of a rude awakening. “We have now reached a moment where we should seriously question the hidden intents of the powers that be,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “A government that sentenced Abubaker Ahmed to 22 years has chosen its place in history on its own accord. Now the question is, are you with us or with them?”