'Your campaigning connected me to the real world'
Birtukan Mideksa is a Harvard fellow, studying for an MA in Public Administration. She’s also been a politician in Ethiopia, leading her home country’s main opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice. And because of her political life and peaceful protest against the Ethiopian authorities, she’s a former prisoner of conscience.
Her life now is a far cry from the Ethiopian prison cell she occupied a few years ago. It’s a place her friends, Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalem, know all too well. Eskinder is currently serving an 18-year sentence because of his journalism.
Eskinder, Serkalem and Birtukan were all imprisoned together between 2005 and 2007, all three declared prisoners of conscience, and Amnesty has campaigned for all three to be released. And we’re campaigning again for Eskinder, because he’s back in prison.
'I was incarcerated twice. The first time, for 18 months, the second, 21 months,' recalls Birtukan. 'Look at how many times Eskinder has been imprisoned over the past 10 years – eight times. This is a story of thousands and millions of government opponents in Ethiopia. If you look at the pattern, it’s getting worse.'
Jailed for protesting
In 2005, Birtukan’s Unity for Democracy and Justice Party ran for election, but lost under questionable circumstances. When she and her supporters peacefully protested the legitimacy of the election results, thousands were arrested. Birtukan, Eskinder, Serkalem and over 100 journalists and opposition leaders were put on trial.
'The whole time was very difficult, especially for Serkalem,' says Birtukan, who shared a cell with her at one point. 'She was pregnant and she had to live with 70 to 80 prisoners in a very unclean cell. The smell was terrible.
'When she finally had her baby, she went to the hospital and… came back alone. She had to leave the little one with her mum. My daughter was with my mum – she was eight months old. So we consoled each other. That was really the toughest time in prison.'
Jailed again for speaking out
Birtukan was given a life sentence, but was eventually pardoned and released after nearly 18 months.
Her freedom, however, was short-lived.
After speaking publicly in Sweden in November 2008 about her release, she was re-arrested in Ethiopia on 28 December. Her pardon was revoked and her life sentence re-imposed.
We issued urgent actions on her behalf and began campaigning for her release. For Birtukan, who was often kept in solitary confinement, it was a lifeline.
'In 2009, only my mum and my daughter were allowed to visit me,' says Birtukan. 'I was really cut off from the whole world. I didn’t have any access to the media. We were not allowed to talk about Amnesty International, but my mum mentioned to me that Amnesty people were campaigning for me. That was like a silver lining. It gave me hope. It connected me to the real world.'
Birtukan was finally freed in October 2010. 'The pressure you guys exerted on the Ethiopian government was very instrumental in my release,' says Birtukan.
She hopes it will be possible to do this again, this time for Eskinder.
Harrassed, silenced and thrown into solitary confinement
In 2012, Eskinder was jailed for ‘terrorism’ after giving speeches and writing articles criticising the government and supporting free speech.
'Eskinder is one of the most virtuous people I know,' she says. 'He really believes in the good in all of us. The love he has for his country, his dedication to seeing people living a dignified life – it’s really huge.
'He didn’t start out with just criticising the government. He always gave them the benefit of the doubt. He was relentlessly committed to expressing his views, his ideas.'
That commitment triggered a campaign of harassment, including threats, a ban on the newspaper Eskinder ran with Serkalem, and repeated imprisonment. In 2005, when all three were jailed, Eskinder was thrown into solitary confinement for months on end. 'That didn’t make him a hateful person,' observes Birtukan. 'Still, he sustained his optimism and strong belief in his cause.'
Take action and help get Eskinder Nega home
In a country where speaking out almost certainly means jail, Amnesty’s support is crucial.
'We shouldn’t forget the people back home – they would love to support us – but the suppression is huge. People can’t express that kind of protest against our imprisonment in an organised way.
'Some people say fighting for rights and democracy in Africa is futile,' explains Birtukan. 'Some people even try to focus solely on our economic performance. But we mustn’t trade off our human rights for monetary benefit.
'The things you are working on – they’re also our aspirations and those rights we have as human beings, no matter what. It has huge significance in terms of the moral support you generate for people like Eskinder and myself.'
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.