Ex-NSU professor vows to finish what he started

By MATTHEW BOWERS, The Virginian-Pilot / JuLy 26, 2007

Despite spending 21 months in prison with a life sentence looming, former Norfolk State University professor Yacob Hailemariam said Wednesday he has no regrets about his activism in his home country Ethiopia.

"Believe me, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life," Hailemariam said in a telephone interview from his apartment in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

The Ethiopian government pardoned and released him and 37 other opposition leaders Friday, four days after sentencing them to terms of up to life in prison for inciting violent protests after disputed 2005 elections.

Hailemariam and others denied the charges and declined to defend themselves, calling the trial a political sham. Human rights groups and members of Congress agreed. Amnesty International called the accused "prisoners of conscience."

Hailemariam, who turned 63 on Saturday, had returned to Ethiopia in late 2004, anxious to help move it toward democracy when elections were announced. That remains his goal, he said.

"I went to law school on the backs of poor peasants who have starved to death," he said, referring to his free education. "I feel I am indebted. I came back to pay that debt. Of course, things have happened, but I did my best. I have absolutely no regrets."

Since his release five days ago, he said, about 2,000 well-wishers have visited his apartment. They have left food and gifts - including 50 bottles of scotch - for the soft-spoken former business law professor and United Nations special envoy.

Hailemariam said he left prison physically and mentally healthy. He and his colleagues typically rose at 6:30 a.m. and exercised for two hours - doing calisthenics, push-ups and sit-ups. He read more books and magazines - newspapers weren't allowed - than when he taught at Norfolk State. Writing was forbidden, which was his biggest frustration, but he managed to sneak out one long protest letter that was posted on Web sites.

Other prisoners showed the opposition leaders respect by washing their dishes and clothes. Saturdays and Sundays - visiting days - brought lines of people, often strangers, bearing food and gifts and, most importantly to Hailemariam and the others, showing support for their cause.

"Prison becomes very light if you know why you are in prison," he said.

For eight months, Hailemariam and five others elected by fellow prisoners used intermediaries to negotiate with the government for their release. At 10 a.m. Friday, he and the others were given 30 minutes' notice that they were being freed.

Escorted home, he entered his apartment to a ringing phone. It was his wife, Tegist, who lives in Virginia Beach with their son, who had already heard the news.

"It was really welcome, a welcome gesture," Hailemariam said of his release. "But the most important issue was what could we do next."

He'll return to the United States in three weeks to visit family and friends. He wants to thank them, the Norfolk State community and local members of Congress for their support. And then after a month he wants to go back to Ethiopia. He has unfinished business, he said: The Ethiopian community that elected him in 2005 has no roads, electricity or water.

"I'm going to go back and represent people in any way I can," he said. He's hoping his wife and married daughter and grandchildren will accompany him for a while.

Democracy remains a hope, although he'd have to consult with his family before running again for office, he said. "People are so grateful for what we have done, but we haven't done much," he said. Still, he said, he and fellow leaders "have ignited a thirst for democracy, and nobody can extinguish that."