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Humanity before Ethnicity

Birtukan freed! Accorded a hero's welcome
By Eskinder Nega | October 6, 2010


Ethiopian opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, speaks to reporters from the window of a prison van after being freed from prison in Addis Ababa, October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer


Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa (right) returns home to Addis Ababa following her release from jail by Ethiopian authorities on October 6. (AFP/Aaron Maasho)


Prominent Opposition figure Birtukan Mideksa, right, is greeted by hundreds of her supporters as she visits her mother's house shortly after her release in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wednesday, Oct.6, 2010. (Photo: AP/Samson Haileyesus)


Birtukan at her home flanked by UDJ opposition leaders Gizachew Shiferaw (left) and Dr. Negasso Gidada (AFP/Aaron Maasho)

Birtukan Mideksa, prominent Ethiopian political prisoner, was freed today from almost two years of absurd imprisonment---a blatant abuse of power by the EPRDF, specifically PM Meles Zenawi. She was accorded a hero’s welcome by family, relatives, friends and supporters. A press conference is due in few hours where her terms of release will be detailed.
Here is a synopsis of what had happened since mid- December 2008:

December 10 2008
The public face of the brutal Federal Police is startling. Clean shaven, tall, a little on the bulky side, urbane, and tastefully attired, he is in fact the opposite of the popular caricature of the uncouth and uneducated Federal Police officials. Werkeneh Gebeyehu , Commissioner of the Federal Police and its public face, though real power lie with his deputies, cut an impressive figure behind his desk as he spoke with Birtukan Mideksa on December 10 2008.
“What legal mandate does the Federal Police have in regard to this issue?” inquired Birtukan Mideksa, President of UDJ, an opposition party, after the Commissioner had winded down.

He smiled contemptuously before he answered. But her courage surprised him. This is probably the first time for him to personally experience it.

“This is no academic discourse,” he said, trying his best to deepen his voice. He was really caught off guard. This could hardly been discussed when he was instructed to speak with her by the battle-hardened leaders of the EPRDF. “I think its best if you avoid raising such kind of questions,” he said, almost unconsciously with who-cares-what-the- law-says tenor to his voice.

Werkenh recapped by insisting that the terms of Birtukan’s conditional pardon had been violated in Sweden; where, he alleged, she had publicly denied seeking pardon to get out of prison. He sought a public retraction. Birtukan parted with the Commissioner convinced that the EPRDF was out to frustrate her party’s prospects from the very outset.

December 23 2008

Almost two weeks later, Birtukan was again summoned by Werkeneh, this time courtesy of a warrant, which she demanded, to his lavish office in downtown Addis. It was to be a brief sojourn.

“You have three days to deliver a public retraction of your statement in Sweden to this office. If not, the government will assume that the pardon was secured under false pretense and revoke it,” he told her officiously. There was nothing more either side could say. An ultimatum had been delivered and a time-frame set. Upping the challenge, the demand was publicized on state media that night. The nation held its breath in suspense.

December 26 2008

Three days later, Birtukan responded publicly but ignored the demand to deliver it to Werkeneh’s office. In a brilliant piece she released to the press, she said:

"I have asked forgiveness through the elders by signing on the document dated June 18, 2006 in the spirit of reconciliation the elders championed and to bestow a political end to charges that were politically motivated. This is a fact that I cannot change even if I want to….To present a process that has complex features as a case that followed a normal legal process for asking forgiveness is either foolishness or ignorance….In my opinion, the real reasons behind all these illegal intimidation and warnings have nothing to do with transgressions of the law. The message is clear, and is not only for me but also for all those who are active in the peaceful struggle: A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits set by the ruling party, not the constitution."(End of quotation)

December 28 2008

What happened on December 28 is brilliantly here detailed by Professor Al Mariam, in a January 5 2010 commentary titled “In defense of Birtukan Mideksa:

That happened last week in Ethiopia. Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP) President Ms. Bertukan Mideksa was strong-armed, manhandled and whisked away to the infamous Kality prison. In a VOA interview, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, the aging human rights lion of Ethiopia, gave eyewitness testimony. On December 29, Prof. Mesfin was standing with Pastor Daniel and President Birtukan outside of Pastor Daniel’s office when four unmarked vehicles stormed on the scene. Approximately 10 unidentified armed men (thugs) exited the vehicles and violently grabbed President Birtukan and forcibly dragged her into their vehicle. Professor Mesfin attempted to reason with the abductors explaining that it was unnecessary to rough up President Birtukan as a simple summons would be enough to command her appearance in a court of law. At that point, the crew of thugs tongue-lashed Prof. Mesfin with a torrent of insults. One of the thugs assaulted the nearly 80-year old professor savagely with the butt of his rifle almost knocking him to the ground. Prof. Mesfin suffered blunt force trauma injury to his abdominal area in the unprovoked assault. He was rushed for medical assistance, and reports indicate that he is undergoing extensive tests to determine the extent of his injury. (It is to be remembered that Prof. Mesfin underwent major surgery in India a little over a year ago.) President Birtukan’s driver, Ato Abdurahman Ahmed, was also beaten mercilessly by the thugs.(End of quotation)

Post December 28 2008

Asked abourt Birtukan’s imprisonment, Meles Zenawi, was adamant that she will not be freed. “ It will undermine the process,” he said repeatedly. She had her one chance. Of course no one believed him; not even his steady admirers.

Of the last time he spoke about her in Ethiopia, I wrote:

Posing defiantly before probing journalists after a universally mocked “election victory” , Meles Zenawi,PM, whose party “won” 99.6% of parliamentary seats, spoke about her harshly, but noticeably absent the typical ardor: “This(her release) is a purely legal issue, and it is between her and the law. No one can come between the two. No one. Not opposition parties, not our friends abroad."

Much to the relief of the public,however, long attuned to reading between the lines of its official’s doublespeak, her release is not a “dead issue,” as has been land privatization for the entirety of his party’s existence. And by the dismal standards of the times, when the dominance of the EPRDF is overbearing, this is cause for optimism. There is room for her release short of a revolutionary overhaul.(End of quotation.)

September 22 2010

Meles responds to query about Birtukan's imprisonment at Columbia University. " I wouldn't be surprised if she were to ask for a pardon. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government was to grant it to her," he said.

Few days later, "mediators" leaked news of her imminent release. Family members also quietly confirm her pending release.

October 4 2010

Mediators inform journalists of a planned press conference on October 5 2010. The theme: Bitrtuka's release. It's now semi-official. Less than twenty four hours to go!

October 5 2010

Unnamed government officials confirm her release "There was no bargaining. This is purely a magnanimous act by the government," said one unnamed government official haughtily to local papers.An obvious attempt to dampen the celebratory mood. (Won't work, guys!!! She is a heroine in the eyes of millions! Give it up!!)

Birtukan is finally FREE! Accorded a hero's welcome.