By Abebe Gellaw, July 16, 2009 (FEER) — World leaders, including President Barack Obama, have called for the immediate release of Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But how many of them have even heard of Ethiopia’s pro-democracy leader Birtukan Mideksa, the 36-year-old politician and mother who is being held in solitary confinement, condemned to life in prison without due process?
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been brutally efficient in eliminating his political rivals by killing, jailing or forcing them into exile. But because Ethiopia is seen as a “strategic ally” by the U.S., Mr. Obama failed to publicly speak out against human-rights violation by the Zenawi regime on his recent trip to Africa or even mention Ms. Mideksa’s name.
Unlike the Burmese military junta, the Zenawi regime is an ally of the U.S. and its European partners. The Bush administration used to refer to the Zenawi regime as a “linchpin” in the war on terror in the Horn of Africa. While the U.S. imposed economic sanctions against Burma in 1997, Mr. Zenawi has been enjoying a stream of financial and military aid from the U.S. and Europe since he came to power in May 1991 after a bloody power struggle with the dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. Since 2005, Mr. Zenawi has even attended all the G-8 summits and this year’s G-20 meeting in London, despite protests by Ethiopians in the diaspora and human-rights activists.
There’s a good reason why her countrymen call Ms. Mideksa the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopa. In the run up to the 2005 national elections, the first contested election in the history of Ethiopia, Ms. Mideksa joined the Unity for Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUD). Within a few months she was elected the party’s first vice president. Her party won a landslide victory in most of the places where there were foreign election observers. In the capital, Addis Ababa, the CUD had a clean sweep. Zenawi’s party could only win one single municipal seat. All the 23 contested parliamentary seats went to Ms. Mideksa’s party.
Before the count was completed throughout the country, Mr. Zenawi ordered a state of emergency and froze the count in the remaining districts. Local election observers in remote villages were chased away despite protests by foreign observers, most notably Ana Gomes, chief of the European Election Observation Mission to Ethiopia.
Supporters of the CUD who felt that the election was stolen started protesting. In June and November 2005, the ruling party killed 193 civilians including minors and wounded over 780 others. In a space of one week in November 2005, over 40,000 civilians were rounded up and were detained in harsh military camps.
Over 100 opposition leaders, including Ms. Mideksa, were arrested that same month and charged with “genocide” and treason. They were released after 20 months in jail in July 2007 after a mediation effort by local elders.
While touring Sweden in November last year, Ms. Mideksa refuted government propaganda that its high-profile prisoners were pardoned despite their guilt. She said legally speaking the so-called pardon was null and void as none of the prisoners committed the alleged crimes and the correct procedures were not followed.
As soon as she arrived home, the government launched a vicious propaganda campaign using state-controlled media against her. She was re-arrested in December 2008. Prime Minister Zenawi declared that the pardon granted to Ms. Mideksa was revoked and accused her of banking on support from “powerful friends in powerful positions” in the West. He then announced her life sentence.
President Obama, being of African descent, is in a unique position to influence the Zenawi regime and push for the release of Ms. Mideksa. Until leaders of the Free World take a firm stand against tyranny, regardless of strategic alliances, those who demand freedom will continue to suffer. Most Ethiopians believe Mr. Obama will one day speak out and support their struggle for freedom and dignity. In the meantime, Ms. Mideksa will continue to languish behind bars.
Mr. Gellaw is a Knight / Yahoo! international journalism fellow at Stanford University.