Update on Birtukan Mideksa

Congressman Donald Payne has issued the following press release in support of Birtukan Mideksa:

January 9, 2009- Washington, DC - Congressman Donald M. Payne, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, issued the following statement today:

“I am concerned over the continued targeting and imprisonment of innocent civilians by the Ethiopian government.

Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, one of the most prominent political leaders and a staunch human rights advocate, has been imprisoned for the second time by the Ethiopian government. Ms. Mideksa, a freedom fighter and a courageous leader, has faced untold suffering over the past several years.

I first met Ms. Mideksa in Kality prison in 2006. Ms. Birtukan Mideksa is on a hunger strike and unfortunately has been separated from her young child. “

In October 2007, shortly after her release from prison, Ms. “Mideksa stated in a testimony before my subcommittee that, ‘The period immediately preceding the May 2005 elections was an extraordinary time in Ethiopia’s history. For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, the seeds of democracy were planted throughout the land, and on May 15th, Ethiopians came out by. the millions to harvest a bounty of democracy.

‘Unfortunately, instead of democracy, 193 Ethiopian civilians were killed and many more injured by Ethiopian security forces in demonstrations following the May 2005 elections. Additionally, more than 10,000 people were detained in the aftermath of the elections. According to the Independent Commission of Inquiry, the government used excessive force against civilians.

Ms. Birtukan also said in her testimony that, ‘…the most basic agreement we reached with the Elders to secure our release was nullified and used by the government for mind–numbing propaganda to isolate the CUDP [the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party] from the public and to instill fear in the public so that it will refrain from supporting the party.’ In her concluding remarks, Ms. Birtukan powerfully stated,’It will not be easy for all of us to confront the past. We must try embracing the rule of law and respect for human rights and democracy. The time is ripe for democratization in Ethiopia.’

I strongly urge the Government of Ethiopia to immediately release Ms. Birtukan Mideksa and other political prisoners, open the political space, and respect the rule of law. I will work closely with the incoming Obama Administration to ensure respect for human rights, regional stability, and the promotion of democracy in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government must realize that brutality and repression will never succeed in crushing the aspiration for democracy and freedom. Either one must embrace democracy and rule of law or face the same fate of the Mengistu’s of this world.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports:

By Jason McLure, Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) — Ethiopia’s leading opposition politician is in her 10th day of a hunger strike after she was jailed for life on Dec. 29 following a dispute with the government, according to her mother.

Birtukan Mideksa, 34, has been taking only juice and water and is being held in solitary confinement in a windowless 3-meter by 4-meter (10-foot by 13-foot) cell in Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison, said her mother, Almaz Gebregziabhere, who visited her in prison yesterday.

“I didn’t recognize her because of how she’s changed,” said Gebregziabhere, 72, in an interview today at her home in Addis Ababa. “I begged her for the sake of her daughter to eat, but she didn’t.”

Prison officials have banned all visitors except Gebregziabhere and Mideksa’s 3-year-old daughter, Halle, from visiting her, Gebregziabhere said. Gebregziabhere, speaking in Amharic through a translator, said the family had been unable to hire a lawyer for Mideksa because those contacted on her behalf have turned her down as a client, fearing government reprisals.

Mideksa, a leader of the now-dissolved Coalition for Unity and Democracy party, was first jailed after Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, in which the CUD claimed victory. She and dozens of other opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison, though they were released in 2007 after a pardon agreement with the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

She was re-arrested Dec. 29 after she rejected government demands that she make a public statement saying she had formally requested the original pardon.

‘Humane Condition’

Bereket Simon, an adviser to Zenawi, said he wasn’t aware of Mideksa’s fast.

“We have a prison system whereby we hold prisoners in a humane condition,” Simon said. “This is a case where she has said that she didn’t ask for pardon and the decision of the judiciary is being applied. At this point, I don’t think it requires intervention by lawyers.”

Simon also said the government wasn’t interested in potential mediation efforts by the independent group that negotiated Mideksa’s initial release.

Following their release in 2007, some former CUD leaders chose exile in the U.S. or U.K. Mideksa stayed in Ethiopia and formed a new party that planned to contest the 2010 elections.

“Look what has happened to her,” said Berhanu Nega, who along with Mideksa led the CUD movement in 2005, in a phone interview from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The government “will never allow any peaceful transition in that country.”

Call to Struggle

Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 before his imprisonment, has called for armed struggle to oust Zenawi. Nega left Ethiopia after his release from prison in 2007 to teach at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

His new movement, Ginbot 7, has formed an underground network inside Ethiopia with the goal of overthrowing Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Nega said.

The U.S., which views Ethiopia as a key ally in the fight against terrorism, offered a rare rebuke to Zenawi’s government following Mideksa’s arrest, warning Ethiopia to avoid steps that appear to “criminalize dissent.”

Government opponents accused the state of rigging the May 2005 poll, sparking protests in Addis Ababa. A judicial inquiry after the election concluded that government security forces had killed 193 opposition supporters in the unrest.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via the Johannesburg bureau at abolleurs@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: January 8, 2009 13:51 EST

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