In churches, schools and meeting halls around Minnesota, the state’s sizeable population of Ethiopian refugees is rallying to free a heroine to them who is wasting away in a prison hellhole in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
The woman is Birtukan Mideksa, a 34-year-old mother and charismatic political leader who has been attracting millions of young followers – and who a year ago paid the price by being sentenced to life in prison by an Ethiopian government that is cracking down hard on all opposition ahead of national elections coming this May.
With representatives of virtually every one of Ethiopia’s many opposition groups living in Minnesota, freeing Birtukan Mideksa has become a rallying cry for many of them – and a unifying one among dissident groups that usually would not work together.
At a commemorative event marking Birtukan’s first year in prison, held last month at at the Longfellow Park Recreation Center in Minneapolis, members from many of those groups met to share a meal and discuss strategies to release Birtukan. Flyers were also distributed at the Medhanealem Orthodox Ethiopian Church in Minneapolis.
“Birtukan is a prisoner of conscience but there are many others, from many ethnic groups, who are also in prison because of their political opinions,” said Asheber Worku, the organizer of the December commemoration. “The issue of Birtukan embraces all these other political prisoners and we are working together to pressure Meles Zenawi.”
In October 2007, Birtukan drew the largest-ever crowd of Ethiopian refugees in Minnesota – more than 700 people – to a rally held at the First Christian Church in Minneapolis. The excitement was an early sign of the political potency of a young icon of democracy – an Aung San Suu Kyi of Africa she is often called – that surrounds her still.
The comparison was too close for her own safety. In December 2008, while walking in downtown Addis Ababa, five cars pulled up and Ethiopian police jumped out, gun-butted Birtukan’s companion into submission, pushed her into a car and sped away.
According to Amnesty International, Birtukan is presently being held at the Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa as a “prisoner of conscience” in a cell that is two-meters wide, and was “arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association.”
Prisoner of Conscience
Ethiopian immigrants in Minnesota say that Birtukan’s illegal confinement is only one of sweeping criminal acts committed by the Ethiopian regime, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, designed to quash all opposition in the May elections, and to further secure his grip on power.
“They have imprisoned all opposition party leaders, the independent media has been closed, and many people have gone into exile,” said Berhane Worku, an engineer at the Metropolitan Council in St. Paul who is running an email campaign, supported by Amnesty International, to pressure U.S. elected officials to push for Birtukan’s release.
Meles Zenawi took power in Ethiopia in 1991, overthrowing the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, known for its corruption and ruthless suppression of all dissent. Hailed for several years as a hope for democracy in Africa, over the past decade Meles has instead transmogrified into a horrifying replica of Mengistu or even worse.
In 2003, a genocide carried out by the Ethiopian military against the Anuak tribe of western Ethiopia was uncovered. Over the past two years, similar widespread crimes against humanity have been documented in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where entire villages of Somali-speaking Ethiopians have been wiped out by Ethiopian soldiers in the name of fighting a supposed “terrorist insurgency” brewing in that region.
Birtukan’s troubles began in 2004 and 2005, when during a period of unprecedented political openness in Ethiopoia she publicly emerged as a fiercely intelligent, pragmatic opposition leader who united enough votes to seriously threaten Meles and his governing party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
When it became obvious that the EPRDF would lose substantially to an opposition led by a vital young woman who was drawing throngs of young people, the crackdown began. The election results were nullified and when protesters gathered in Addis Ababa to express their displeasure, Ethiopian soldiers opened fire on them, killing at least 187.
Hundreds of opposition political figures, dissidents, journalists and human rights workers were imprisoned at the time – with many, like Birtukan, receiving life sentences.
Also like Birtukan, many of these were released 18 months later after a pardon was brokered. But when Birtukan kept up her political activity by founding the Unity, Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP) and started travelling overseas – to places like Minnesota to drum up support for her cause – that was too much for the regime. She was re-arrested, her pardon revoked, and returned to her closet-sized cell.
For the past year, the only people who have been allowed to see her are her 72-year-old mother, Almaz Gebregziabhere, and her three-year-old daughter, Halle, who visit for one hour a week.
She started a hunger strike early during her latest jailing but abandoned it after her mother and others begged her to stop.
Birtukan’s mother appeared on a live radio interview last month at KFAI in Minneapolis.
“Free Birtukan” t-shirts – wearing one in Ethiopia will get you jailed immediately if not tortured or killed – are being worn by many of Ethiopian immigrants in Minnesota, as are “Birkutan – Prisoner of Conscience” wristbands, and flyers describing her plight are being widely posted in schools and churches.
“What motivates me is the moral question,” Asheber Worku said. “What I see here in America is democracy. I want to see it in my home country, too.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect location of the commemorative event held last month in Minneapolis. It was at the Longfellow Park Recreation Center.