By Diane Petryk – December 23, 2009 – LEWISBURG — A court in Addis Ababa sentenced associate professor Berhanu Nega to death Tuesday, albeit in absentia, accusing him of being part of a terrorist group and conspiring to assassinate government officials.
Nega, speaking from his office on campus, said it is the government that is fomenting terror, and he is being persecuted for fighting for democracy.
Bucknell spokesman Tom Evelyn said the university would decline to comment.
The death sentence included four other people and called for life in prison for 33, all in connection with activities following the election of 2005, when 200 people died in protests.
What they were protesting, Nega said, was the goverment’s invalidation of an election in which he was elected mayor of Addis Ababa and other pro-freedom candidates were put in office.
Nega did not serve as mayor for even a day. He was sent straight to jail by rulers who said his party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, stole the election, he said.
When people protested the government’s action, about 200 were killed.
“They blamed us, called it treason, put us in jail,” Nega said.
He served 21 months in prison while Bucknell faculty joined those working to get him freed.
He was pardoned in 2007 and returned to Bucknell, where he had worked in the economics department from 1990 to 1994.
It was the second time he had to flee the country of his birth. He left in 1980 when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by communists.
“Now a kangaroo court run by these thugs is trying to terrorize people,” Nega said. “It’s because there is an election approaching.”
The government doesn’t want to see a repeat of 2005, when they were ousted, Nega said. “They are trying to intimidate any opposition.”
No one inside the country takes the election seriously, as if it were legitimate, he explained. But the government wants to hold an election for show to placate the West.
“It’s a sham, but it helps them get aid money from the West.”
Nega said he heard about the death sentence Tuesday morning when he was called by a reporter.
“Hundreds are being arrested right now,” he said. “Four hundred in different parts of Ethiopia, so no one will seriously challenge them.”
Although the death sentence is mostly for show, he said, “with this kind of government you never know.”
“I’m betting on the security provided by the United States government more than anything else,” he said.
The sad and somewhat ironic thing, however, he said, is that the U.S. and other western governments are supporting this government in the name of the War on Terror.
The Ethiopian government, which was once communist, now claims to be anti-terror, he said.
“The problem is, after 9/11, the (United States) government turned from anti-communist to anti-terror, and they support anyone claiming to be anti-terror.”
“We are appealing to the government to change its policy toward this brutal regime,” Nega said.
There is a sense, he said, of some beginning to acknowledge what this government really is, that it violates human rights, there is ethnic apartheid going on, and every western country has condemned these abuses.
Nega lives in Lewisburg with his wife, Nardos Minasse, and their two sons, who go to Lewisburg High School. He earned a degree in economics from the State University of New York and a doctorate in economics from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.
He is a specialist in the economics of development and of African development in particular. He would like to see freedom and democracy hold sway on that continent and in his native country.
Until then, he would not think of going back, even if the death sentence should be lifted.
“Life without freedom is not really life,” he said.
“The only thing I would say to the public in the United States is that its appeal has always been its love of freedom. And freedom is not something that applies to only part of the world. It’s a universal value.
“The U.S. has to be true to its own ideals, and if it can’t directly support democracy, at least supporting dictatorship is contrary to the basic philosophy of the America I know.”