Birtukan freed! Accorded a hero's welcome
By Eskinder Nega / October 6, 2010
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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,"
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.