Senior Opposition Leader in Ethiopia Is Released From Prison

On October 6, 2010, Professor Ephraim Isaac headed a Coalition of Ethiopian Elders that helped the release of a prominent Ethiopian political leader from prison. Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge and leader of the opposition political party, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), had been in jail for almost two years (See October 6, 2010 New York Times Senior Opposition Leader in Ethiopia Is Released From Prison.)

Ms. Birtukan Mideksa graduated from Addis Ababa University Law School with a Bachelors Degree in Law. She practiced law at the Third District of the Federal Judiciary. She was appointed to be a judge of the Third Federal District Court in Addis Ababa. In 2004, Ms. Birtukan joined a political party called Rainbow Ethiopia: Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Later she helped form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), a coalition of four parties.

In the 2005 Ethiopian National Election, her CUD party won about a third of the seats. But her party leaders believed they would have won more if not for voting and counting irregularities. They called for public demonstrations that resulted in violent confrontations with the police. Subsequently, the leaders of the party, including Ms. Birtukan, were arrested and convicted of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order by force and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2007, after 18 months in jail, Ms. Birtukan and 25 senior members of her political party were pardoned and released from jail. The Coalition of Ethiopian National Elders headed by Prof. Isaac, based on lengthy consultations with the Government and the detainees respectively, worked out the pardon and the release.

In 2008, Ms. Birtukan founded the political party Unity for Democracy and Justice, UDJ, for which she was elected to be Chairperson. That year, during a trip to Sweden and a lecture she had given, journalists coerced her to explain the way in which she and the opposition leaders were freed. There followed reports that she had publicly denied having apologized for her actions or asking for a pardon. So, upon her return to Ethiopia, the government ordered her re-arrest to fulfill her life sentence conviction that had earlier been rescinded based on the pardon.

There were jubilations in Ethiopia following the news of Ms. Birtukan’s release. The USA Government and the European Union, and Ethiopians throughout the world warmly welcomed her release. The United Kingdom’s Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, welcomed her release, saying, “This is an important step forward. We have always taken the view that her re-imprisonment was not in Ethiopia’s interest and a solution should be found… for her to be released.” Likewise, Amnesty International issued a statement saying, “We are delighted that she has been able to go home to her family.”

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