cc Ethiopia has no independent judiciary, no free press, no civil society, and individual liberties have been severely curtailed, so why isn’t Meles Zenawi a persona non grata in the international community, asks human rights activist Mitmita. Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge who was charged with treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005, is just one of many people jailed for exercising their fundamental rights, in this case the freedom of speech, says Mitmita. Mideksa is in solitary confinement in Kaliti Prison for allegedly violating the terms of a government pardon granted to her in 2007. The accusations are based on her failure to retract statements made in a speech that she was released from prison through a politically negotiated settlement rather than a formal legal pardon. Western failure to condemn abuses by Zenawi’s government for the sake of their own strategic interests, says Mitmita, comes at the expense of the rights of ordinary Ethiopians.
In the barbed wire existence that is Kaliti Prison, past the mocking eucalyptus trees swaying in the cerulean Addis skies, beyond the square outdoor cages reserved for visitors, away from the prison guards whose hands callously sift through the contents of your food basket, in solitary confinement is a thirty-four year old political prisoner. It is her second stay since 2005 within the infamous walls of the prison that lies on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital.
Ms Birtukan Mideksa’s crime, according to the Ethiopian government, is violation of the terms of her 2007 pardon. She was arrested in 2005, in the post election upheaval during which 200 individuals were killed by government forces and more than 100 opposition political leaders and elected parliamentarians, human rights defenders, journalists, attorneys and civil society members were imprisoned. She was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The charge was treason. International outrage followed. Massive campaigns from around the world drew attention to the case. Amnesty International and other NGOs declared the defendants were prisoners of conscience who had been imprisoned solely for the expression of their fundamental rights.
In 2007, Ms Mideksa and her co-defendants were released as part of negotiations between elders and the Ethiopian government, which allegedly resulted in the following: Signed confessions by Ms Mideksa and others, and a pardon granted to them by the government. The terms and parameters of the pardons as well as the confessions remain murky. What is known and evident is that Ms Mideksa’s December 2008 arrest resulted from the exercise of her right to free speech.
Outside of the two square metre prison cell that she now inhabits, the political prisoner is a former judge, a mother to a four-year-old daughter and the head of an opposition political organisation (arguably Africa’s only woman to hold such a position). In juggling these roles, she was working to avoid the minefields that accompany exercising your rights in Ethiopia. How does a woman who presided over high profile cases as part of the judiciary end up in solitary confinement serving a life sentence for a second time in the span of two years? The answer lies in the tortured reality that is life in Ethiopia.
By all accounts, the country has no independent judiciary, no free press, no civil society, and individual liberties such as freedom of speech, association et al have been severely curtailed if not eliminated. Even artists don’t enjoy freedom of thought – their expressions can’t stray from the party lines. For example, Teddy Afro, a popular singer, is serving time for an alleged hit and run, though his lyrics and pro-democracy stance suggest that the accident might have been mere subterfuge.
A famed author once noted the degree of civilisation in a society is measured by the condition of its prisons. One can add to that a society’s education system. Both are in tatters in Ethiopia. Of the latter, one need only examine Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s policies – tenth grade graduation was considered completion of high school. It is no wonder then that by any economic index, the country lags behind and is an utter development disaster.
The prison system, certainly since 2005 but most likely prior to that date, hosted a who’s who of Ethiopia’s intelligentsia, artist community and human rights defenders. That certainly doesn’t make it unique – totalitarian regimes are apt to discredit those who defy them. Those who were not imprisoned were slaughtered in broad daylight. In the Ogaden, the violence committed by government sources was so egregious that human rights groups have labelled them crimes against humanity. This brand of leadership has not only been exported to neighbouring Somalia but the US also allegedly used Ethiopia as a location for one of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition prisons.
Which brings us back to Ms Mideksa. Solitary confinement, according to Amnesty International, puts Ms Mideksa at risk of ill-treatment and torture. Ms Mideksa has been denied access to counsel and to medical treatment. She is at risk – if not already exposed – to abuse at the hands of prison guards. To be a woman political prisoner is something altogether quite different. The potential for suffering is innumerable.
The world, outside of those who concern themselves daily with the goings-on of Africa, has turned a deaf ear to her and to Ethiopia’s suffering. The leadership’s consistent flirting with disaster – whether it is famine, the ill-fated foray into supposed electoral politics in 2005, or the misadventures in Somalia – provides a clear image of a ruling party holding a nation in an extricable iron grip. Yet somehow the fate of a Mugabe or a Bashir of the Sudan doesn’t befall Meles Zenawi. There has been no international condemnation, no arrest warrants and he certainly isn’t a global persona non grata.
Unlike other dictators, the head of Ethiopia has had an air of legitimacy conferred upon him – to the point that Westerners need to be reminded of his true colours, demonstrated during the 2005 elections. The Prime Minister’s policy appears to be twofold: Firstly, to convey an indispensable willingness to protect the interests of the West in the Horn of Africa and secondly, to display the accoutrements of democracy and free market economics without actually implementing any of the institutions or responsibilities that accompany both.
And it seems his strategy has worked like a charm. Except for a rare rebuke or a slap on the wrist, the West – especially the primary funders of the Ethiopian regime – generally turn a blind eye to the massive human rights violations besieging the nation. Which is not surprising: Even Ethiopians seem tired of Ethiopia’s same old problems. It is much easier to tune out something that has been going on for far too long. For those in need of a crash course in Ethiopian political history, consider the following:
*Prior to 1974, Ethiopia was ruled by a succession of kings and emperors and was essentially a feudal state. The United States was an ally.
*1974 brought a faux Marxist/Leninist military junta, which terrorised the nation for close to two decades. Highlights include the red and white terrors, during which almost 100,000 civilians are said to have been disappeared. The Soviet Union and its bloc were Ethiopia’s allies.
*That dictatorship was ousted by a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters, which included the current Prime Minister. Though the origins of this group were also Marxist Leninist, the group’s chameleon-like nature allows it to don the cloaks of whatever political formation is most expedient. This group has been in power since 1991. Under their ruthless policies, the number of the disappeared is unknown.
*Today, almost two decades later, the United States is an ally again and Ethiopia has earned the coveted designation of ‘partner in the global war on terror’. This status is lamentable if not outright laughable – how can a government unable to provide access to clean water, overcome consistent food insecurity, or curb its penchant for liquidating political opposition be entrusted to battle terrorism in the Horn of Africa?
Ms Mideksa’s imprisonment is but a microcosm of the tragedies experienced by the larger population. Fundamentally, her case illustrates the immense power that the Ethiopian government wields over its citizens. Her purportedly offensive statements that led to her arrest were made during a speech in Sweden. Shockingly, her words merely stated facts: That her prior release was not based on a formal legal pardon, but rather a politically negotiated settlement. It was her refusal to rescind these statements that landed her in jail. Since Ethiopia’s state apparatus extends beyond boundaries and across oceans, imagine the control it must wield over the population within its borders. Big African brother is watching. Following the 2005 elections, the government banned SMS text messaging after pro-democracy activists used the tool to organise voters and peaceful rallies. Various Ethiopian blogs, websites and other Internet resources are routinely blocked in Ethiopia. The besieged population is regularly searched before entering malls and restaurants.
Three months into her reinstated life sentence, we must raise some critical questions about Ms Mideksa’s case and the state of Ethiopia as a whole. Are fundamental rights extinguishable at the will of a government? Why isn’t international funding truly linked to a country’s human rights record? Should Western interests, especially purported ‘terrorism’ concerns, supersede the human rights of Africans? And most importantly, where is the outrage?