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Birtukan Ethiopia

Ethiopia: Birtukan Unbound!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

An October to Remember

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken. …” On October 6, 2010, Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s First Daughter, also headed home from nearly two years of captivity to the loves of her life, the ones she was forced to forsake, her daughter Hal’le, her long-suffering septuagenarian mother and 80 million of her countrymen and women who prayed and waited to see her walk free. It will be an October to remember.

The Stockholm Syndrome

Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi says he freed Birtukan because she asked for a “pardon”; and “pardon” he did in “words that are like a cloud of winged snakes,” to quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, drifting aloft a sea of lies, damned lies and total fabrications. The history of the law is replete with monstrous examples of false confessions: innocent individuals victimized into admitting atrocious crimes under duress, torture, threat of violence to themselves or loved ones, diminished capacity induced by extreme psychological and physical deprivation or mental impairment induced by prolonged and harsh solitary confinement or by trickery and deception.

Prisoners can be brainwashed to say anything by those who control them. Prisoners who have endured torture, extreme degradation and abuse have been known to do shocking things to please their captors and ease their own pain and suffering. Abused prisoners have been known to deceive themselves into believing the cruelty of their captors as acts of kindness. It is called the “Stockholm Syndrome”. When the victim is under the total and complete control of her captor for her basic needs of survival and her very existence, she will say and do anything to please her captor. The victim will comply with any command or demand of her captor just to survive and remain sane, and not self-destruct by giving in to the terror and rage she feels for her helpless situation. It is ironic that Birtukan in this so-called pardon allegedly confesses and apologizes for wrongdoings committed in Stockholm, Sweden.

It is not difficult to parade a prisoner before television cameras and force her to confess her “crimes”. Political and war prisoners subjected to torture, deprivation and psychological manipulation have been known to condemn themselves, their families, their countries, and even the Almighty. Brutalized prisoners have been known to collaborate with their torturers to inflict horrendous violence on fellow prisoners. Political prisoners in solitary confinement have been driven to hysteria and madness by their isolation. Political and war prisoners have committed suicide to end their suffering at the hands of the captors.

Birtukan was held for months in a dark room with no human contact except a few minutes a week with her mother and daughter. Fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?” Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!” But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.'” In the end Birtukan signed Zenawi’s scrap of paper making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman.

Zenawi Wrote It, Birtukan Signed It!

What is written in the so-called pardon request is a transcription of what Zenawi said during his ignominious appearance at Columbia University[1] a couple of weeks ago. Using forensic document examination techniques, it can be demonstrated to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Zenawi is the invisible hand that authored the pardon document. Simply stated, Zenawi wrote the pardon to himself and had Birtukan sign it. It is just as simple as that. But scientific investigative techniques aside, we all know, as Mandela has taught us, that “Only free men (and women) can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” Terms and conditions are always dictated to prisoners. Birtukan is no position to negotiate her release by pardon or any other means. Zenawi wrote down his release terms and conditions and ordered Birtukan to sign it. The alleged “pardon” request could in no way be regarded as Birtukan’s voluntary confession of wrongdoing; it is Zenawi’s hallucination of Birtukan’s wrongdoing. It is hogwash.

Zenawi’s “pardon” may be “real” to his Western donors who want to ease their guilty-as-sin consciences for providing billions to support his dictatorship. For Zenawi’s apologists who will sell their souls for a patch of land to build a shack and throw in their grandmothers to sweeten the deal, it may be a real pardon. For the opportunists, brown nosers, derrier-kissers and mercenaries, it may be a legitimate pardon. But to any freedom-loving Ethiopian or any other reasonable human being, the “pardon” is nothing more than the reveries of a self-absorbed megalomaniac garbed in legalistic hokum.

The fact of the matter is that an innocent person’s freedom is not negotiable or pardonable. An innocent person cannot ask for a pardon nor a career criminal grant it. Zenawi makes a travesty of the institution of pardon, which has a long and honored history in human civilization; and occupies the highest position in the tradition of the law. Zenawi robbed Birtukan of her freedom. He did not free her by a “pardon”. Birtukan has always been free. Zenawi let Birtukan out of prison in 2010 for the same reason he put her in prison in 2008: Enlightened self-interest. He jailed her to make sure she will not whip him at the polls. He let her loose to pander to Birtukan’s generation and hoodwink the international community.

Just last year, Zenawi emphatically and sadistically guaranteed that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Now he says she is “free” to go because she scratched her initials on a scrap of paper. When his Western donor sugar daddies pled with him time and again to let Birtukan go, he told them to go to hell, hell, hell. When the Western donor fat cats unsheathed their gelatinous claws and threatened to withhold aid, he laughed in their faces. But he finally had to let Birtukan go (as he could never free her) not because he is a statesman, compassionate or squeezed by the donors, but because he is ghastly afraid of what Birtukan represents. She represents Ethiopia’s youth. She represents Ethiopian women. She represents the dreams and aspirations of 80 million people. She represents the ascent of freedom and democracy and the descent of dictatorship and oppression in Ethiopia. In sum, she represents the “future country of Ethiopia”.

Zenawi knows the youth and women of Ethiopia hold the key to his very survival and the permanence of the ethnic homelands (Bantustans) he has toiled for so long to create. He also knows they hold a deep grudge against him for chaining Birtukan in the dungeons of Kality while shackling them in what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia. By letting go Bitukan, Zenawi seeks atonement and redemption in the eyes of the young people and women of Ethiopia. It is his twisted way of asking them for a pardon. By releasing Birtukan, Zenawi hopes to release and unleash the good will and support of Ethiopia’s youth and women to himself and his regime.

It is laughable that Zenawi wants to be seen as magnanimous for granting “pardon” to Birtukan. But self-delusion is the quintessential attribute of all dictators. Zenawi confuses the arrogance of vanity with magnanimity. When a thief is forced to return what he has stolen to the rightful owner, it cannot be said that he is a virtuous man or performed an honest act. When the slave master is forced to emancipate his slave from bondage, it cannot be said that he freed the slave. The slave was always free until enslaved by the slave master. As one cannot thank the thief or praise the slave master, neither can Zenawi expect gratitude for doing what he could never do: Free Birtukan! Magnanimity, he must know, is to the virtuous as vice is to the vicious.

But Zenawi missed a fine opportunity to be truly magnanimous. He could have simply said he let Birtukan out in the interest of justice or for humanitarian reasons. Better yet, he could have done it in strict compliance with his own “pardon law”[2] in a process that is perfectly transparent yielding an outcome that would have preserved Birtukan’s dignity while saving him face. He could have stunned his critics by following his own law and performing a simple compassionate act. He could have gained the grudging respect of his opponents and the admiration of all for acting so courageously and honorably. He could have generated so much good will for himself. He could have even seen a glimmer of his own humanity. But his vampiric addiction to victimizing others, his irrepressible need to humiliate and suck dry the last drops of dignity from his opponents, the raging anger in his mind and the flaming hatred bottled in his heart will never allow him to become anything but what he is. But humiliating others is like throwing a boomerang which travels elliptically in the air and returns to the person who threw it. Zenawi did not humiliate Birtukan by forcing her to sign a scrap of paper confessing to wrongdoings she never committed. He humiliated himself by showing how petty, vacuous, small-minded and contemptible he is. But why waste ink or paper talking about a “pardon” that is not even worth the paper it is written on.

We are happy Birtukan is out, no longer in the dungeon. It does not matter how she got out. We couldn’t care less if she got out by scratching her initials on a scrap of paper oozing with lies and fabrications. We do not care if she got out by singing praises to a dictator. To be perfectly frank, we don’t give a damn how Birtukan got out of Zenawi’s prison. We are just glad she is out and back with her daughter, mother and the rest of her family, and her people. If Zenawi wants us to thank him for letting her go, we will be magnanimously happy to do so: “Thanks for nothing!”

For the rest of us who love, admire and respect Birtukan, let us resolve from this day on never to mention the name Birtukan Midekssa with the word “pardon” in the same phrase or sentence. It is blasphemy to say Ethiopia’s First Daughter and foremost patriot was pardoned into freedom by a universally-condemned human rights abuser.

It is not about the past. It is about now! What time is it?

It is Time to Celebrate Birtukan!

What a great young woman Birtukan truly is! What a genius she is! Birtukan signed that baloney passing off as a “pardon” and walked straight out of prison. She proved that she is indeed Birtukan Invictus, master of her destiny and captain of her soul. In a contest between beauty and the beast, brains trumped brawn once again. I can only imagine what she was thinking when she read the scrap of paper she was forced to sign. She probably chuckled a few times as she skimmed the paragraphs drenched in lies. I can imagine her gently reminding the so-called elders (shimagles): “Gentlemen, but you have forgotten so many of my others crimes. How could that be? Please, please, let me make a full confession”:

I, Birtukan Midekssa, in addition to all of the crimes I have confessed to committing as set forth fully in this pardon request, am also personally responsible for other dastardly crimes including global warming, global poverty, the global financial crises and recession, the war in Iraq, hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA, sunspots and the disbanding of the Mickey Mouse Club.

Oh, well! Let us just celebrate Birtukan. Let us celebrate her enormous sacrifices. Let us pay her homage for the long months she endured in solitary confinement in one of the worst prison systems in the world as documented in the 2008 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. Let us thank her for standing up to dictatorship. Let us show her our genuine love, appreciation and gratitude for being an enduring symbol of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. Let us support her in anything she desires to do for herself and her family. Above all, let us embrace her for the moral courage she showed under the most inhumane circumstances.

Birtukan now has attained greatness reserved for the very few. She now walks in the very footsteps of Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. She must now walk the same long walk Mandela took to bring freedom to South Africa. She must now march the long march that Gandhi made to bring independence to India. She must now walk across many bridges like Martin Luther King to heal a nation divided by hatred. It will be a long walk and a protracted march to her dreamland of the “future country of Ethiopia.” But I have no doubts, none at all, that she will one day enter triumphantly into that glorious “future country” to the rhythmic ululations of millions of her people.

It’s Time to Tell Birtukan We Are Mighty, Mighty Proud of Her!

I want Birtukan to know that I am proud of her more than words can describe. I am proud of who she is and what she has accomplished in advancing the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. But there are a few other things I would like for her to know also. If she ever feels that she may have let us down while she was in solitary confinement, I want her to know that the pain and suffering she endured in the dark in total isolation has uplifted us for our lifetimes. If she ever has doubts that she could have done more for us while chained in Zenawi’s dungeon, I want her to know that she has done more in solitary confinement than a million of us put together sitting idly in freedom. If she ever experiences misgivings for signing a scrap of paper to reunite with her daughter, her mother and her people, I want her to know that we are proud, damn proud she signed it to get the hell out of hell. If she ever thinks that she has to explain something she did or did not do, said or did not say while caged in Zenawi’s prison, I want her to know that her actions speak louder than any words she may be able to utter. She has nothing to explain; her life of struggle and suffering for her people speaks volumes. If she thinks she could have done things differently or better, I want her to know that she did it all just right. We would not want her to change a thing. She spoke the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She paid a high, very high price for speaking truth to power. But so did Mandela. She knows it comes with the territory for all great leaders. Above all else, we want her to know that we are mighty, mighty proud of everything she has done, EVERYTHING! She has nothing to regret, and everything to be proud.

It’s Also Time to Understand Birtukan

Let us also understand Birtukan. It is true that she is a strong young woman of conviction and principle. That is why I call her Birtukan Invictus (the Unconquered) or ayibegere. But even the strongest steel exposed to the harsh elements suffers metal fatigue and bends. Let us remember that for the past two years Birtukan was denounced, vilified, strong-armed and manhandled. She was thrown into the dungeon of wrath and tears. She was beaten, tortured, bludgeoned and bloodied. She was thrown in solitary confinement. She was mocked, ridiculed, humiliated and disrespected. Zenawi has done everything he could to shatter her bones, cripple her body, break her heart, crush her spirit and confuse her mind; but her soul — the temple of her principles, her compassion, her decency, her courage and her bottomless love for her people — remains intact and unblemished. Zenawi could not touch it! Birtukan still stands tall, unbowed and unafraid.

I plead with all of her well-intentioned colleagues and supporters who surround her to take it easy and give her breathing space. A victim of solitary confinement, the worst form of psychological torture, needs time to heal and regain her inner balance. Let us always remind ourselves that Birtukan was kept in solitary confinement under the most degrading conditions. She was told she has been abandoned and forgotten by the world. She was told day and night that nobody cared about her, nobody gave a damn. She was told she will die alone in that dark cold room. Now she needs to be with her family and friends and the people who love and care about her to heal the deep psychological wounds of the silent torture of solitary confinement.

The winds of politics will sway their fickle cargo to and fro, but it is unfair and inconsiderate to hang out Birtukan in the political wind so quickly after she had spent so much time in solitary confinement. She needs to be left alone for awhile. She does not need to be burdened with problems. Though we all know that Birtukan is an ordinary young woman destined to do extraordinary things, we should not mistake her for “superwoman” who can solve all problems for all people by waiving a magic wand. It has been taught that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” This is the season to honor Birtukan; it is the time show how proud we are of her. This the season for us to show her our love, respect and admiration. This is the time for her to rest her weary body and nurse her battered spirit. It is not the time or the season to put the burdens of discord, squabbles and dissension on her frail shoulders.

Free All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia

Birtukan is let out of prison, but tens of thousands of others remain imprisoned for their political beliefs. We must continue to work arduously for the release of so many other political prisoners whose names and faces are known but to their families and their torturers.

There are also other prisoners who are in dire need of help. These inmates inhabit a prison of their own making. They are the prisoners of hate “locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness”, as Mandela would describe them. They live in a prison of the closed mind dwelling in a body with a stone cold heart. Our sister Birtukan has been to hell and back; but her tormentors still live there; or in the verse of Mark Spencer:

So here sits the prisoner,
Shackled in his cell.
Wrestling with the demons,
Of his private hell.

In the right season and at the right time, I have no doubts that Birtukan and her generation will free those shackled in the cells of their private hell because they know all too well the wages of hate. Birtukan and her generation will rise up and declare in the words of Martin Luther King: “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” It is now the right time and right season to rededicate ourselves to Birtukan’s “future country of Ethiopia.” No more bitterness, no more hatred, no more cruelty and no more inhumanity.

Birtukan Unbound! Prometheus Unbound!

I have had no greater honor in my life than pleading Birtukan’s cause at every forum and opportunity available to me since she was jailed in December 2008. Birtukan has been a source of great inspiration and strength to me. I have learned the true meaning of moral integrity and courage from her. I stand in awe of her for the price she has paid speaking truth to power. Though she is young, she has shown more wisdom than so many of her elders who have spent so much of our lives in pursuit of formal education.

There are countless individuals and groups throughout the world who have toiled so hard to see Birtukan free. Many of them worked quietly.  I have seen many young people use modern technology to make Birtukan’s case known to the world. I have seen many young people flooding public events with flyers of Birtukan’s imprisonment, standing by the street side waving banners and silently protesting at candle light vigils. I have seen some walking the halls of power in America and heard of others doing the same in Europe, Canada and Australia pleading for Birtukan’s release. Each and every one of them deserves our gratitude and appreciation. I believe all of us who have worked in Birtukan’s cause have done so not just because we believe Birtukan is an extraordinary leader and compassionate human being, but also because she is the quintessential symbol of her generation. Our unshakable faith in Birtukan is merely a reflection of our unwavering faith in her generation. I willingly confess that I truly, sincerely and genuinely believe in the existence of that wonderful dreamland which Birtukan has often described as the “future country of Ethiopia”!

God Bless Ethiopia! God Bless Birtukan Midekssa and Her Family!



Ethiopia: Interview With Birtukan Midekssa

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: Except for elements inserted in the nature of narrative license, syntax and independently established facts, this “interview” is based on English or Amharic translations of public statements, hearing testimony, speeches and other declarations[ 1] of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and that country’s most famous political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment in December 2008 on allegations of denying a pardon was a tactical move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate and eliminate his only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 “elections”. In March 2010, the U.S. State Department declared Birtukan a political prisoner. In January 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention. Amnesty International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in 2009.

This “interview” is done partly for the benefit of Western governments and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in light of the May 2010 “elections”. It seems that Western governments in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see nothing and hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic shield of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while coddling a dictator, I hope with this “interview” they will at least begin to appreciate this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful, enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured, humble and compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.

I had the great honor and privilege to meet Birtukan in the Fall of 2007 when she led a delegation of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (Kinijit) party leaders visiting the United States. On numerous occasions, I have publicly expressed my highest respect, greatest admiration, deepest gratitude and boundless appreciation for Birtukan’s sacrifices in the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia.

Q. Let’s start by talking about your situation in Akaki federal prison over the past year and half. We are told that your “health is in perfect condition”, you have picked up a “few kilos” and could use some physical exercise. How is life in prison?

Birtukan: Correction! You mean life at the Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort? Well, the food here is excellent and so are the accommodations. I have my own special room. I like to call it my boudoir. They call it “Solitary Confinement”. It is true that I have “gained a few kilos”, but that is because I spend all of my time in my room. “C’est la vie” at the Akaki Hilton, as they say in French.

Q. The reason you were returned to prison to serve out a life term is that you allegedly denied receiving a pardon when you were released in July, 2007. Did you deny receiving a pardon?

Birtukan: I have never denied signing the pardon document as an individual prisoner. I, along with the other opposition political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders according to the document that was written on June 18, 2007. This is a fact I can not change even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all these illegal intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have nothing to do with playing with words, inaccurate statements I made or any violations of law. The message is clear and this message is not only for me but for all who are active in the peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not according to what the country’s Constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.

Q. As you know, elections are scheduled for May 23, 2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Birtukan: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the Akaki Hilton. I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no radio or television. But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you can judge for yourself what the situation is like today.

In 2005, public interest and participation in the electoral process was massive. The European Union Observer team estimated voter registration at no less than 85% of all eligible voters, based on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons. The total number of candidates for the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 1,847. A total of 3,762 candidates ran for Regional Councils. The total number of women candidates to the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 253, and 700 in the Regional Councils.

To its credit the government in 2005 allowed limited media access, established a Joint Political Party Forum at national and constituency levels, regular consultations with electoral authorities to resolve problems in campaign and election administration, special elections-related training programs for the police and the judiciary, pledges of non-violence between the ruling and opposition parties for election day and invitation of international election observers and so on.

As election day approached, the government started to use its power to influence the outcome of the election. There was widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of public gatherings and opposition party rallies, threats and intimidations by some local public officials. In some instances, force was used to disrupt public gatherings and detain opposition supporters throughout the country. In the days preceding the elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and television using images and messages designed to intimidate by associating the genocide in Rwanda with opposition politics.

Even though the Election Board was required to announce the official results on June 8, that requirement was superseded when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces, and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special military units. The Elections Board simultaneously ordered the vote tallying process to stop, and on May 27, the Board released its determination that the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front had won 209 seats, and affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties had won 142 seats. Our party filed complaints in 139 constituencies, the UEDF lodged 89 complaints, while the EPRDF raised concerns over irregularities in more than 50 seats.

That’s how it was back in 2005.

Q. The ruling regime continues to make public accusations that the opposition in the current “election” is inciting violence as it did in 2005. Recent public statements from the highest levels of the ruling regime indicate that any attempts by opposition parties to boycott the election, complaints of harassment and intimidations and agitations of youth to engage in violence will be dealt with harshly after the elections. How do you assess the situation?

Birtukan: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is any violence to occur in the current election it is not going to come from the opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the government in 2005 to look into the killings and excessive use of force against demonstrators decided that there was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by the government. The shots fired by government forces were not intended to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill them by targeting their heads and chests. The historical facts speak for themselves. If there is election related violence today, one need look no further than the usual suspects.

Q. The ruling regime likes to trumpet to the world that Ethiopia is governed democratically, human rights are fully protected and the rule of law observed. Do you agree with these claims?

Birtukan: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same thing. There is no democracy in Ethiopia today, despite empty claims of “recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our government, the immense progress in creating a competitive, pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society.” The fact of the matter is that there is neither pluralism nor commitment to democratic principles and practices in Ethiopia. The government’s claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the stage of political sloganeering. If pluralism involves widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from citizens, it does not exist today in Ethiopia. If pluralism means increased and diverse participation in the political decision-making process and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not exist in Ethiopia. If pluralism means a process where every voice is heard, conflict is resolved by dialogue and compromise and an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and respect is nurtured, that does not exist either. But democracy in Ethiopia today must not only reflect the values of pluralism, it must also be genuinely participatory, transparent, accountable, equitable and based on the rule of law. We are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will not be accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in earnest by installing its critical pillars of support.

Q. What are the pillars you believe are important in establishing democracy in Ethiopia?

Birtukan: The are many. Let me start by mentioning the need for an independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that having served as a judge and also being a victim of a judicial system that has me imprisoned for life. In 2005, I and the various opposition leaders were prosecuted for various state crimes including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court system that has little institutional independence, and one subject to political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It is a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment, intimidation and persecution. Judges are selected not for professionalism or legal knowledge but for their loyalty to the government.

It is universally accepted that an independent and professional judiciary is a key element in the institutionalization of the rule of law, the promotion and protection of human rights and even in implementing social and economic reform in society. The U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents recognize the central importance of an independent judiciary as the guarantors of due process and justice. Judicial independence is guaranteed by Article 78 of the Ethiopian Constitution but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are supposed to be free of party politics, many are under the direct control of the party in power, if not outright members. With the judiciary under effective political control, there is little confidence in its institutional powers or the legitimacy of its rulings. If we can not have serious judicial reforms, not only will we be unable to protect the rights of citizens, we will always live under the rule of the gun instead of the rule of law.

Q. What other pillars of democracy do you believe are missing in Ethiopia?

Birtukan: Press freedom is another essential requirement necessary for building democracy in Ethiopia. Without a free press, there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important political information because of exclusive government control of the media. Political parties need to have equal access to media controlled by the government so that they can effectively communicate with the people. Various international human organizations have ranked Ethiopia at the top of the list of countries where there is little freedom of press. The U.S. and other Western governments can help by promoting private electronic media and supporting the emergence of private newspapers, weeklies and magazines to help develop a well-informed public.

Q. What are your views on the electoral process, and what improvements to that process do you believe are needed?

Birtukan: First, all elections must be free and fair in order for citizens to meaningfully participate in shaping the political makeup and future policy direction of government. People must be free to register to vote or run for public office. Candidates and parties must be free to engage the voters without intimidation or harassment. There must be an independent free press to provide information to the voters. The freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns must be guaranteed. There must also be an impartial system of conducting elections and verifying election results. It was the lack of independence, impartiality and transparency of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board that was one of the factors that complicated the resolution of the dispute in the 2005 elections. We need an elections board that is representative of all the political parties and enjoys the public trust. People need to have confidence that their votes are counted properly and there is no elections fraud.

Q. How do you assess the human rights situation in Ethiopia?

Birtukan: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured under international law and the Ethiopian Constitution. The ruling regime has sought to put up a façade of commitment to human and democratic rights. But its practices contravene all of its obligations under the Ethiopian constitution and the human rights conventions that bind Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 14 enumerates all of the “human rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens. Arts. 14-28 enumerate these rights and include basic protections against arbitrary government actions and guarantees of due process. Art. 13, sec. 2 states “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.”

The fact is that the ruling regime observes neither its own constitution nor the requirements of well-established international human rights conventions. The regime’s own Inquiry Commission in 2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government security forces. The human rights violations committed by the ruling regime are so numerous and egregious that it would be too difficult to list them all here. But I wish to cite a few examples documented in the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for 2006.

That report stated that “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees.” Massive arrests and detentions are common, and the Report concluded, “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice…. Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions… The independent commission of inquiry… found that security officials held over 30,000 civilians incommunicado for up to three months in detention centers located in remote areas… Other estimates placed the number of such detainees at over 50,000.”

Q. Do you think Western governments, particularly the U.S., can play a role in improving the overall situation in Ethiopia?

Birtukan: As the largest donor country, the U.S is in the best position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In general, Western governments must insist on the release of all political prisoners and the immediate restoration of democratic rights. They must insist on accountability and transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep the government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting civic society organizations and implementing other mechanisms that can facilitate adequate monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The West must insist on the functioning of a free press without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help strengthen private media in Ethiopia. The West can also play a central role in the electoral process by ensuring fraud-free elections, helping political parties build more effective organizations and campaigns, strengthening civil society groups to function as facilitators in the democratic process and professionalization of the National Election Board to help it become fair and balanced. On the other hand, we want to make sure that U.S. security assistance to Ethiopia be used for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and never against the civilian population.

Q. What are your views on the future of Ethiopia?

Birtukan: I believe Ethiopia is the country of the future. Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression, ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront the past and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to build the future country of Ethiopia by fully embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only through dialogue, negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be guaranteed in Ethiopia.

Thank you Birtukan for this “interview”. Stay strong!

[1] See e.g.,

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.