Much to the delight of her supporters and International rights group, the Ethiopian regime freed a former federal judge and prominent opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, after almost two years of incarceration.
Birtukan was initially jailed along with some 100 opposition leaders following the May 2005 election. She was pardoned in 2007 under a bogus guilty plea. Birtukan was later thrown back into jail in 2008 after refusing to retract her comments made while on a working visit in Sweden regarding the terms of her initial pardon.
Amnesty International considers Birtukan a Prisoner of Conscience. In the past, prominent American lawmakers have asked for her release and Meles Zenawi has vowed in no uncertain terms to keep her locked up for life. It is no clear why Meles himself started the negotiation for her release summoning a committee of elders. Pundits say the move is meant to weaken the opposition, silence “the extremist Diaspora”, revamp Meles Zenawi’s image, and bury the deep scar from an embarrassing May 2010 election. Meles Zenawi, a rebel turned barefaced dictator, has been ruling Ethiopia since 1991.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both welcomed her release calling on the Ethiopian regime “to release hundreds of other political prisoners who’ve been arbitrarily arrested.” Ethiopia is a prison house to an estimated 20,000 Oromo political prisoners.
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.
“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.