Birtukan Mideksa: The US must speak out for those prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia
Independent journalists in Ethiopia face grave threat of imprisonment if they criticise the state or its laws.
By Birtukan Mideksa
Although Ethiopia has its first new prime minister in 17 years – so far, the government has failed to right a long history of wrongs. With prisoners of conscience still languishing in its prisons, Ethiopia must receive the clear message – especially from allies like the United States – that continued human rights violations will not be tolerated.
My journey to become a political prisoner in Ethiopia began as a federal judge fighting to uphold the rule of law. Despite institutional challenges and even death threats, I hoped to use constitutional principles to ensure respect for basic rights.
But, having witnessed firsthand the government disregard for fundamental constitutional rules, I joined the opposition and became the first woman to hold a high-level position in an Ethiopian political party.
Our party – the Coalition for Unity and Democracy – contested the 2005 elections with a multiethnic platform based on economic liberalism and respect for individual rights. As momentum gathered, many hoped change had finally arrived in Ethiopia.
But after early reports showed our party ahead in the polls, the government dashed our optimism by throwing me and my colleagues behind bars and declaring a victory for the ruling party.
When I emerged after 21 months in prison, our party was outlawed and the political landscape had grown increasingly repressive. But we forged ahead, forming the new Unity for Democracy and Justice Party and continuing to advocate for dialogue and non-violent political reform in Ethiopia.
Authorities arrested me again in 2008, claiming that I had mischaracterised the circumstances of my release. But peaceful political activities are not the only way to become a prisoner of conscience in Ethiopia.
Independent journalists face the very real threat of imprisonment in response to their work. Authorities have detained my friend Eskinder Nega eight times over his 20-year career as a journalist and publisher.
After the 2005 elections, Eskinder and his wife – Serkalem Fasil – spent 17 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, Serkalem gave birth to a son despite her confinement and almost no pre-natal care. Read-more from Al Jazeera