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Remembering Ethiopian Political Prisoners

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Actions of Our Enemies, the Silence and Indifference of Our Friends

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Dr. Martin Luther King. The silence and indifference of our friends could be just as harrowing. Thank you Gasha (Shield) for Ethiopians for remembering the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Ethiopia today. Nothing is more important and uplifting to political prisoners than knowledge of the fact that they are not forgotten, abandoned and forsaken by the outside world. Remembrance gatherings at town hall meetings such as this one serve to remind all of us who live in freedom the divine blessings of liberty and the unimaginable suffering of those trapped in the darkness of dictatorship. Thank you Gasha for organizing this event to remember Ethiopia’s voiceless, but not forgotten, political prisoners. [1]

Birtukan Mideksa as the Symbol of All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia

The symbol of all political prisoners in Ethiopia today is Birtukan Mideksa. It could be said Birtukan is the accidental heroine in our struggle against dictatorship. She is a young woman in her mid-thirties, and a single mother with a four-year old daughter. She is soft spoken, humble and unassuming. She is thoughtful, articulate, witty, analytical and measured in her speech. She studied law and became a judge. She performed her judicial duties with integrity, independence and extraordinary professionalism. Birtukan represents the best of the best generation of Ethiopia – the young women and men who are destined by history to rescue Ethiopia from the darkness of dictatorship and deliver her to the bright sunlight of freedom, democracy and human rights. Birtukan will remain our flickering candle of hope in the withering storm of dictatorship and oppression that has gripped our homeland.

Birtukan’s Reimprisonment

Following the 2005 elections, Birtukan was jailed for nearly two years with other opposition leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and civic society activists. She was released by a “pardon” in July, 2007. In December, 2008, her “pardon” was revoked because “she failed to annul her denial” of receiving it in 2007. Birtukan told a different story:

On December 10, 2008 the Federal Police commissioner sent two officers of the District 12 Police to ask me to go to his office, I went to his office thinking that he probably wanted to talk to me about our Unity Party. However, when he told me the reason I was summoned to his office was related to the pardon, the first question I asked him was what authority the police have in relation to this issue. But his response was accompanied with a smile of surprise and said this is not an academic discussion and it is better for you to stop this kind of question. But what they found to be funny and perplexing is something great that I will forever live for, stand for, and sometimes get jailed and released for – it is the rule of law and abiding by the constitution…

On December 24, 2008 he summoned me to his office again through a messenger but without a legal warrant. But when I received a legal warrant in the afternoon of the same day, I did not waste a minute to go to his office. What awaited me at the Commissioner’s office and what was stated in the warrant were very different. Instead of asking me questions as stated in the warrant, what the Commissioner did was to give me a warning that sounded like an order. He said that unless I retract the statement I made in Sweden within three days, the government will remove the pardon and lock me in jail.” [1]

Of course, Birtukan has never denied receiving a “pardon”. Even if she had made a denial, the fact that she received one is a matter of public record. Her opinion on the subject has no legal significance; it is certainly not a crime. For allegedly “denying” her “pardon”, she is now doing a life sentence. She was held in solitary confinement for the first six months, a punishment reserved for the most violent criminals inside any prison. But her re-imprisonment is instructive on the brutal and outrageous nature of the dictatorship in Ethiopia today.

Typology of Ethiopian Political Prisoners

The phrase “political prisoners” may be overbroad in accurately describing the ordinary citizens from all walks of life who are held captive by the dictatorship. The discrete categories of political prisoners in Ethiopia are numerous. There are “no political prisoners” who are “political prisoners.” The capo dictator in 2006 declared, “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia at the moment. So it is difficult to explain a situation of political prisoners because there are none. However, insurgents and militants have been imprisoned because of their militant and violent acts.”
There are political prisoners who have committed “state” crimes by exercising their guaranteed “human and democratic rights” in the “Ethiopian constitution”. Dissenters, critical journalists, civic society leaders and members are jailed arbitrarily despite the fact that they have unrestricted constitutional “freedom of expression and information and ideas of all kinds without interference,” press censorship is prohibited and “freedom of association and peaceably assembly” guaranteed. The are those who, like Birtukan, are made political prisoners because they “will forever live for, stand for, and sometimes get jailed and released for [upholding] the rule of law and abide by the constitution.”
There are political prisoners who were once members of the dictatorship but fell out of grace when they opposed the cabal leadership (that is the “government within the government”). Among these include individuals with strong nationalists leanings, advocates of Ethiopian unity and critics of endemic corruption.

There are those who are imprisoned as “desperado-terrorists”. They are accused of attempting to overthrow the “government” and its “leaders” at the bidding of alleged international masterminds who manipulate them by remote control. Members of certain organizations are automatically presumed to be “militants,” “insurgents” and “terrorists” and jailed.

There are guilty-by-association political prisoners, often family members and friends of those accused of “state” crimes or deemed to be opponents of the “government”. There are scapegoat political prisoners, innocent individuals who become the fall guys for the corruption and wrongdoing of those in power. There are individuals who became political prisoners because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are even entertainers who became political prisoners because they did not sing praises of the dictatorship.

Then there are the inmates of Prison Nation Ethiopia, Inc., some 80 million political prisoners who live each day under relentless oppression.

All of these political prisoners have their own stories to tell, but they can not because they have been rendered voiceless. We must stand in for them and tell their stories to the world.

Campaigning for the Release of Political Prisoners in Ethiopia

We need to undertake a campaign for the release of political prisoners in Ethiopia. By its very nature, this campaign is a moral undertaking. It is a campaign to bring about external pressure on the ruthless dictators to improve the prison conditions for these prisoners and to gain their eventual release.

Such a campaign will not be easy, and we should not expect quick results. Most importantly, we must begin the effort with a clear and realistic understanding of certain fundamental facts about the dictators who maintain Prison Nation. We must incorporate in our operational assumptions that the dictators 1) are concerned only with clinging to power as long as possible and at any cost; 2) operate in a complete moral vacuum; 3) view all Ethiopian Diasporic human rights efforts with contempt and derision; 5) believe that the Diaspora is in a state of disarray, dissension, disagreement and division and without a unifying leadership and therefore incapable of concerted action in any endeavor; 6) know they can sneer at the international community in much the same way as Robert Mugabe and the Burmese military junta; 7) will conform their conduct to international human rights standards only when their personal, financial and monetary interests are at stake, namely when they believe there is a risk of sanctions or loss of international aid and loans which they skim to line their pockets.

In light of the foregoing, how can we best advance the cause of political prisoners in Ethiopia? How can we ensure that political prisoners are not tortured, mistreated, abused and dehumanized? How can we get them released? I believe these objectives can be achieved in a multiphasic process. The first phase is the creation of massive international public awareness of the plight of political prisoners.

Phase 1: Increasing International Awareness of Ethiopian Political Prisoners

Fact Gathering and Documentation. To be effective advocates of Ethiopian political prisoners, we must be well informed on prison conditions and the techniques used by the dictators to transform ordinary citizens into political prisoners. Currently, we have limited empirical data on the number of political prisoners, their distribution throughout the country and prison conditions. It is essential that we collect qualitative and quantitative data. Anecdotal evidence shows that there are 3 “federal” prisons and 117 “regional” ones. It is well established that there are numerous secret prisons and detentions facilities throughout the country. According to a 2008 report by Col. Michael Dewars, an internationally recognized riot expert hired by the dictatorship, “conditions inside Ethiopian prisons are appalling,” possibly the worst in the world. The 2008 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report described prison conditions as follows:

Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening. Severe overcrowding was a problem. Prisoners often had less than 22 square feet of sleeping space in a room that could contain up to 200 persons, and sleeping in rotations was not uncommon in regional prisons… Prison conditions were unsanitary and there was no budget for prison maintenance. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional prisons. In detention centers, police often physically abused detainees. Authorities generally permitted visitors but sometimes arbitrarily denied them access to detainees. In some cases, family visits to political prisoners were restricted to a few per year. While statistics were unavailable, there were some deaths in prison due to illness and poor health care. Prison officials were not forthcoming with reports of such deaths.

Organize Conferences, Town Hall Meetings and Other Discussion Forums. To be effective advocates for Ethiopian political prisoners we must come together and discuss strategy and tactics in a common forum. Today’s forum organized by Gasha for Ethiopians is an excellent first effort. Other meetings and conferences should actively seek the participation of former Ethiopian political prisoners, scholars, human rights advocates, policy makers and others to brainstorm strategies.

Condemnations and Legislative Resolutions. Following the Iranian election and the kangaroo trial of Aung San Suu Kuy, there has been an extraordinary demonstration of moral outrage by various leaders. President Barack Obama, Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Gordon Brown have condemned the illegal detention of Iranian demonstrators and the kangaroo court conviction of Ms. Kuy. The EU tightened sanctions on Burma. India, Indonesia and a number of the ASEAN countries have condemned Burma’s military dictators. There is no reason why we can not get such action taken on behalf of Birtukan and the thousands of political prisoners if we put our resources together. It should be recalled that Ethiopians living in the states of Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Oklahoma managed to get legislative resolutions passed over the past couple of years. We need to undertake such an effort on an international scale.

Securing Support From Former Political Prisoners and Other Human Rights Defenders. The cause of Ethiopian political prisoners could be advanced significantly if we could get the support and endorsement of individuals who have earned universal respect for their moral courage and personal integrity. Recently, President Nelson Mandela called for the release of Ms. Kuy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has condemned political repression in Africa and called for release of political prisoners. President Vaclav Havel (imprisoned for 5 years by the Czechoslovak Communist regime for his leadership of the dissident group Charter 77 and later president), the Dalai Lama, Paul Rusesabagina (the Rwandan hotel manager who saved thousands from Hutu massacres), Walesa (a former political prisoner, later President of Poland and recently spearheaded efforts for release of Cuban political prisoners), Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) could be enlisted in this effort. We can confidently say that Shirin Ebadi, (first Iranian woman Nobel Luareate for peace pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights) and Dr. Wangari Maathai (first Kenyan woman Nobel laureate for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace) and many others could be persuaded to champion the cause of Birtukan and the thousands of other political prisoners in Ethiopia if they are approached.

Join and Support the Work of International Human Rights Organizations. We can’t do it alone. Collaboration with international human rights organizations must be a critical component of everything we do to campaign for Ethiopian political prisoners. We owe a debt of gratitude to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Genocide Watch and many other organizations for much of the documentation and analysis we have today on human rights violations in Ethiopia. We need to join these organization in large numbers and work with them to bring pressure on the dictators. We need to engage the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has previously visited “regional” prisons, to investigate prison conditions now.

Think Global, Act Local: Using Local Media and Resources. Those of us who live in exile in the democratic countries should make use of local media resources available in our communities to raise public awareness for Ethiopian political prisoners. We should write in local newspapers, give radio and television interviews and speak at civic association meetings. Though such efforts may seem somewhat challenging, they could be done relatively easily by anyone who is willing to inform him/herself and is committed to stand up and speak up for the voiceless political prisoners.

We should also make use of resources available at the law schools, universities, high schools, churches and other community organizations to create broad public awareness of Ethiopian political prisoners. For instance, if American students could be mobilized to champion the cause of Darfur, young Ethiopian college students could also mobilize them to support Ethiopian political prisoners. Similar mobilization efforts could be undertaken with religious institutions and civic associations.

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned…

In Isaiah 58:6 is written: “Free those who are wrongly imprisoned… Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.” The essence of this message is present in the teachings of all of the world’s great religions. The cause of freeing Ethiopian political prisoners is divinely ordained, and all of us in exile must shoulder our responsibility, if not for man’s sake, to fulfill the will of the Almighty. We must labor for the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners not because it is easy or fashionable, but because it right and just. In the end, what will make the difference is not the brutality, ruthlessness and inhumanity of the dictators but our humanity, empathy and compassion for the wrongly imprisoned. Let us join hands and do our divine mission: “Free those who are wrongly imprisoned…”

[1] Commentary based on a presentation given at a town hall meeting in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Gasha (Shield) for Ethiopians, a civic organization dedicated to promoting the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, on August 16, 2009.

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