The US State Department’s annual human rights report, released this week, charges that Ethiopia is holding several hundred political prisoners, including the leader of one of the country’s largest opposition parties. The 2009 report says Birtukan Mideksa, president of Ethiopia’s opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party, was held in solitary confinement for the first six months of the year despite a court ruling that it violated her constitutional rights.
Birtukan was among scores of political activists sentenced to life in prison following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 election, then later pardoned. She was imprisoned again in December, 2008 and ordered to serve out her life sentence after refusing to apologize for saying she had not requested the pardon.
The 35-year-old single mother was recently listed by the UN Human Rights Council as a victim of arbitrary detention, and by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. But at news conference late last year, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defended her re-imprisonment, saying it was based on “elementary notions of the rule of law.”
The State Department report also alleges numerous violations of press and academic freedom in Ethiopia, as well as what are called restrictions of the people’s right to change their government peacefully. With Ethiopia’s next national elections less than three months away, the report notes that the ruling party and its allies won all but three of the seats contested in the 2008 nationwide local elections. The report also questioned the government claim of a 93% voter turnout in the 2008 vote, saying no foreign observers had been allowed.
Ethiopia responded to the report vociferously, claiming that it demonstrated “serious intellectual deficiencies.” Said a statement from the Foreign Affairs ministry: “The authors actually claim to make ‘every effort’ to verify all the information in the document. If so, they cannot have tried very hard… The report frequently repeats erroneous claims from previous years even when the government has provided detailed evidence to the contrary.”(IOL, March 13; VOA, March 11)