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US Rights Report Lists Ethiopian Opposition Leader as Political Prisoner

The U.S. State Department's annual human rights reports says Ethiopia is holding several hundred political prisoners, including the leader of one of the country's largest opposition parties. Ethiopia has reacted strongly to past U.S. criticisms of its rights record.

The 2009 human rights 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. The 61-page document says there were credible reports that Birtukan's mental health deteriorated significantly during the year.

Birtukan was among scores of political activists sentenced to life in prison following Ethiopia's disputed 2005 election, then later pardoned. She was jailed 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 U.N. 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 staunchly defended her re-imprisonment, saying it was based on 'elementary notions of the rule of law'.

"She had her day in court, was sentenced by this independent court," he said. "This lady was advised by anybody, everybody who could talk to her, including diplomats, elders and even some members of her party that it would be wrong for her to go to prison simply because she wouldn't correct the wrong statement that she made and expose herself to reinstatement of the court's decision. She refused to do so because she was convinced some human rights organizations abroad, her supporters and sympathizers both abroad and here, would spring her out of prison. We knew that was a very dangerous miscalculation."

The 2009 State Department report 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 noted that the ruling party and its allies had won all but three of the seats contested in the 2008 nationwide local elections. The report also questioned the government claim of a 93-percent voter turnout in the 2008 vote, saying no foreign observers had been allowed.

An Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman said no response has yet been prepared to this year's State Department report. But in answer to the 2008 report, the government published a 68-page booklet calling the allegations 'baseless work of rumormongers and political opportunists'. It said much of the information came from non-governmental organizations and opposition groups which survive on U.S. government funding.

Ethiopia's parliament has since approved a law forbidding any NGO that receives more than 10 percent of its funds from foreign sources from promoting human and democratic rights.

The acting U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, John Yates, Thursday defended the contents of the 2009 report. He said the authors make every effort to verify all information in the document.

"We gather information from lots of different sources, then we here in Addis and our people in the United States try hard to examine and verify reports before putting them into the human rights report," said John Yates. "We consult a lot of people, but we don't accept anything at face value until we do our best to verify, and if we can't verify to some degree, it's not included."

The annual State Department human rights report is mandated by Congress. This year's two-million word document covers conditions in 194 countries.

Introducing the 2009 report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it the most comprehensive record available on the status of human rights worldwide.