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Free At Last, Kinijit Leaders Continue in Ethiopia’s Fight for Democracy

September 19, 2007

by Peter Holslin

“Amnesty International considers CUD leaders prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence and calls on the Ethiopian government to release them immediately and unconditionally.” – Amnesty International: May 16, 2006

[Dr. Berhanu Nega at the New School two weeks ago. Photo by Sam Lewis. A shorter, slightly different version of this article appears this week in The New School Free Press.]

A year ago, Dr. Berhanu Nega wrote Ye Nestanset Gohe Sekede—Amharic for The Dawn of Freedom—in Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison, smuggling it out a few pages at a time. Now the book is a hot commodity in this East African nation of 70 million, but carrying around a copy is dangerous.

The Ethiopian government never officially banned the book. But in September 2006, in the capital city of Addis Ababa, police placed roadblocks around the city, according to a foreign journalist based there who spoke with Free Press. The police searched cars and people, looking for The Dawn of Freedom, arresting, beating, even killing those found with the book.

In May 2005, after a democratic election gone awry, the government imprisoned Berhanu Nega, mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, a member of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or Kinijit, and an alumnus of The New School for Social Research. In a crackdown against demonstrations protesting the election’s outcome, the government arrested thousands. The arrests sparked an international effort, involving student groups, New School administrators, members of the European Union, Amnesty International and U.S. Congressmen to push for the release of the Kinijit leaders and implement democratic reforms. This July, the Ethiopian government finally freed Berhanu and 37 other prominent Kinijit members.

Now on a visit of Ethiopian communities in the United States, Berhanu and other Kinijit members plan to reexamine issues that have hampered the party, but are resolute in continuing the push for democracy in their country. Kinijit is taking on a government known for human rights violations, though, so many Ethiopians expect a protracted fight.

Berhanu Nega, a short, stocky man with a huge smile, began the United States tour two weeks ago at his alma mater. He received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from New School President Bob Kerrey at New School’s convocation. That evening, he spoke in Swayduck Auditorium at 65 5th Ave. to a packed crowd of New School students and Ethiopians, most of them based in New York City, some of them supporters of the ruling party in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Berhanu said one of Africa’s biggest challenges is to overcome poverty—and democracy, he said, is the key to growth. A democratic government provides economic stability, holds corrupt officials accountable, and encourages innovation and long-term investment.

He dismissed the notion that authoritarian governments, like China, can provide great economic progress.

“That’s exactly the stance that Meles and his friends have taken,” Berhanu said, referring to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. “They say, ‘Look, it’s OK if we kill, it’s OK if we maim, it’s OK if we arrest thousands, it’s OK if we are an empire because we provide economic growth.”

“At the end of the day, economic development is supposed to provide freedom,” he said. “Freedom from want, freedom from poverty and hunger.”

Berhanu, born in 1958, first joined the Ethiopian democracy movement in the 1980s, at age 17. He joined a student organization as an undergrad at Addis Ababa University to protest the military rule of the Dergue, a military junta led by Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam that slaughtered thousands of dissidents, both real and imagined, and led the country into a devastating famine.

Berhanu escaped to Sudan after being detained for protests, then to the United States on political asylum. He studied political-economics at The New School for Social Research, graduating in 1991 with a PhD in economics. That year, Meles Zenawi, from Ethiopia’s northern highlands, led a paramilitary group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to overthrow the Dergue. Filled with hope and promise, Berhanu returned to Ethiopia with his family.

Meles Zenawi became Prime Minister and the ruling party began to resemble the one it deposed. Two elections before 2005 were “typical,” Berhanu said. “The governing party gets something like 98 percent and keeps wondering how it lost the two percent,” he said.

The elections in May 2005 were supposed to be democratic. Independent newspapers set up shop and opposition parties campaigned openly, debating the ruling party on television. Millions showed up to vote. Yet on the day of the vote, the EPRDF claimed victory before half of the votes for parliamentary seats were counted. Then Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency. Berhanu refused to give up his mayorship and other CUD members protested instead of taking Parliament seats, so the government threw them in jail.

News reports and human rights groups estimate that the government arrested between 20,000 and 30,000 people for protesting in the months after the election. A government investigation also uncovered that 6 police officers and 193 civilians were killed, and thousands injured, in large part because police fought protestors with live ammunition.

Government officials accused protestors of inciting chaos. “I definitely believe that [the violence] will tarnish the image of the country,” Simon Bereket, Meles Zenawi’s top deputy, told journalist Andrew Heavens after the protests. “The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like childsplay.”

These days, according to Ethiopians, journalists and human rights organizations, Prime Minister Zenawi governs through fear and intimidation.

There is only one television station in Ethiopia and websites of pro-democracy organizations and parties are blocked. Berhanu said agents we hired to keep track of him, all day every day, before he was arrested. According to the foreign journalist who spoke with Free Press—who has connections to high-level government sources, but is unable to speak on the record for fear of endangering associates in the country—the police routinely place spies in the country’s schools, outside the homes of political prisoners and at diplomatic offices.

In 2006, the State Department released a report documenting cases of abuse and killings in prisons, poor prison conditions and the arrest of newspaper publishers, journalists and members of opposition parties. Human Rights Watch has also reported on numerous cases of Ethiopian soldiers and police torturing and abusing citizens, most recently in the eastern desert region known as the Ogaden, populated predominantly by ethnic Somalis. Disturbing stories have also come from native and foreign journalists.

In January, Ethio-Zagol Post—an anonymous blog widely considered among Ethiopians to be one of the country’s most accurate news sources—reported that police dragged a Kinijit organizer named Tesfaye Tadesse, 25, from his friend’s house, beat him so badly that he an lost teeth and an eye, then shot him in the chest and back. It was the sixth killing of a Kinijit organizer that week.

“Their reactions are so disproportionate with the crime,” the foreign journalist told Free Press, referring to the country’s security forces. “That sends a message: don’t organize.”

This summer, in the Ogaden, the government waged an assault on the violent separatist militia Ogaden National Liberation Front. The military ejected aid groups from the area, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and strictly controlled the movement of journalists.

Journalists have visited the region and also spoken with refugees, and Ogadenis have described stories of widespread abuse. The New York Times—whose reporters were arrested, and their equipment confiscated, for traveling into the region—ran an article and video this summer in which Somalis describe how the army burned homes and raped villagers. One woman said she was sexually assaulted with a pair of pliers.

Will Connors, a reporter based in Ethiopia for two years, wrote in Slate recently that he secretly met with Somali refugees from the area, who described being beaten and raped by Ethiopian soldiers. One woman unveiled her hijab to show Connors a giant scar—she explained that a soldier had stabbed her with a bayonet.

The foreign journalist told Free Press, and Connors also wrote in Slate, that most aid organizations are afraid to speak out about human rights violations, fearing it will complicate their activities in the region, or that they will be kicked out of the country. Connors recently left Ethiopia because he discovered his phone had been tapped, his landlord was spying on people in their neighborhood and he was afraid of being arrested.

A U.N. fact-finding mission is currently in the area, but has yet to release any public report.

Last week, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told Reuters that the government had no knowledge of any violence against Ogaden’s population. “To our knowledge, there was not one village destroyed or burnt in the recent action,” he said.

Meles Zenawi recently told Time Magazine, “We are supposed to have burned villages. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.”

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian government or the office of the Ethiopian Embassy could not be reached for comment as of press time

For now, the government seems to be making small steps towards reforms. The crackdowns have stopped in Addis Ababa, the journalist told Free Press. Last week, during the country’s millennium celebration—Ethiopia runs on a unique, Christian Orthodox calendar—the government released over 17,000 prisoners, according to Ethio-Zagol Post.

Written by Peter Holslin

September 19, 2007 at 6:45 am

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