Monday, January 12, 2009

Human Rights: Leader of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice Party ends hunger strike

A leading Ethiopian opposition politician, who was imprisoned for life last month after a dispute with the government, has ended a hunger strike and told relatives she wants to begin legal proceedings to win her freedom.

The leader of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, Birtukan Mideksa, has called off the fast she began December 29, when she was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Addis Ababa's Kaliti prison.

Birtukan's mother Almaz Gebregziabher told VOA her daughter had eaten the soup and Ethiopian bread (injera) she had brought to the prison Saturday and Sunday.

In an interview at her home, Almaz said Birtukan told her she had decided to fight the court 's move to revoke the pardon she received in 2007 - nearly two years after she and dozens of other opposition politicians were arrested in the wake of Ethiopia's disputed 2005 election, and convicted of treason. They had been given life terms, then pardoned after signing a document effectively admitting their guilt and apologizing.

But during a visit to Sweden late last year, Birtukan denied having asked for a pardon, then refused a demand by the government to retract her statement.

Speaking in Amharic, Almaz expressed tearful frustration at her daughter's action, which leaves her to care for Birtukan's three-year old daughter.

Almaz also had strong words for government officials, whom she said had violated her daughter's constitutional rights.

She said the government promised freedom of speech, democracy - she talked and ended up in jail.

Birtukan, a lawyer and former judge, is the first woman to head a major Ethiopian political party.

Her imprisonment changes Ethiopia's political landscape a year and a half before the next scheduled parliamentary elections. Her Unity for Democracy and Justice is an outgrowth of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, which was a major force in the disputed 2005 elections.

She was widely seen as the party's most charismatic figure and a prime minister hopeful, with potential for wide support among members of Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups, Oromos and Amharas.

Government spokesman Bereket Simon earlier told VOA politics had nothing to do with the court order sending Birtukan back to prison. He said it was a simple matter of the judge in the case enforcing the law, and suggested the government has no interest in any further legal proceedings on the issue.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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