NAIROBI, JULY 16 -- A military court in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu has dismissed charges of treason and sedition against 46 prominent citizens who had been arrested in connection with a political manifesto published last month that called for an end to the 20-year rule of President Mohamed Siad Barre.

The defendants, including Somalia's first president, Aden Abulla Osman, and numerous business and religious leaders, were released late Sunday after a four-hour trial that ended when military judges decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case, human-rights observers said today.

The detainees were among 115 signatories of the published letter that called on the Siad Barre regime to negotiate a peaceful settlement of its war with rebellious tribes based in the north, to respect human and civil rights and to fulfill its promise to hold multi-party elections.

At the trial's end, police fired into the air to disperse the hundreds of demonstrators showing their support for the defendants in downtown Mogadishu, according to published reports. There were no reports of injuries.

The close of the trial came 10 days after more than 100 Somali civilians at a crowded stadium were reported killed when presidential guards responded to hecklers criticizing Siad Barre and fired into the air. The gunfire triggered a stampede and many victims were shot dead by the guards or crushed.

The sudden release of the prisoners surprised many human-rights observers and Somali exiles, who feared that the defendants would be found guilty and executed for the sedition charges, which carried a mandatory death penalty.

Reuter added from Mogadishu:

The Somalian government will amend the country's constitution and hold multi-party elections next February, in line with a pledge by Siad Barre last year to carry out political reforms, government-owned Radio Mogadishu said.

Siad Barre, in power since a coup in 1969, announced last year he planned to legalize opposition parties and hold free elections.