Birtukan Mideksa on Hunger Strike, Call to Struggle

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

Last Updated: January 8, 2009 13:51 EST

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