By Anna Gomes, EU Member of Parliament –Birtukan Mideksa is a young Ethiopian woman judge and leader of a political party, who is in prison, serving a life sentence, since December 2008.
She has, thus, been prevented from running for the May 2010 general elections, despite being the leader of the main opposition Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ). Her ‘crime’ was to speak, in Sweden, about the pardon that she was forced to sign to be released from detention in 2007, together with other 37 key elected opposition politicians who were imprisoned in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. Amnesty International considers her a prisoner of conscience, at risk of torture, arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association.
Ethiopia is the second-most populous nation in Africa (80 million citizens), hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is often presented as a crucial actor in the stability of the Horn of Africa, despite refusing to accept the international arbitration on its border dispute with Eritrea and the reinforcement of the extremists in Somalia which resulted from its invasion of that neighbouring country in 2006.
Ethiopia is one of the largest beneficiaries of EC support (644 M € in development cooperation programmes foreseen for 2008-13), despite the systematic silencing of opposition voices by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in violation of human rights and democratic principles to which Ethiopia is bound via the Cotonou Agreement: in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, key elected opposition leaders were imprisoned and demonstrators were massacred (200 persons killed in Addis Ababa on 8 June 2005). The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation criminalises human rights work, led to the closure of NGOs. And there is no media freedom, the Prime Minister recently having publicly vowed to jam foreign sources of information, such as radios Voice of America and Deutsche Welle.
The EU High Representative Ashton stated, in a letter of 22 July, that Birtukan’s “case continues to deserve our special attention”. However, the EU has not used its clout to pressure the Ethiopian government to release Ms. Mideksa and other political prisoners. The European Parliament called for the “immediate and unconditional” release of Birtukan Mideksa in a resolution approved shortly after her re-arrest, in January 2009. Development Commissioner Piebalgs admitted, in March 2010, at the Joint Parliamentary Assembly ACP-EU, that the imprisonment of “popular” Ms. Mideksa “can undermine the credibility of the May 2010 elections”, in which EPRDF, the ruling party, and its allies won more than 99% of the vote – a result that speaks for itself…
The Sakharov prize should be given to those who need international visibility and protection. Birtukan Mideksa needs both.
By awarding the Sakharov Prize to Birtukan, the EP would bring hope and world attention to this young mother and one of the few female party leaders in Africa, whose health condition in detention has been deteriorating. It would also guarantee visibility to the struggle of thousands of forgotten political prisoners who fight for justice, the rule of law and democracy in Ethiopia.