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Ethiopia's Opposition Holds First Rally Since 2005

Supporters of imprisoned Ethiopian political leader Birtukan Mideksa have marched in the streets of Addis Ababa to demand her release. The march was the first officially sanctioned political demonstration since the violent protests of 2005.

A carefully controlled group of 250 people marched to the offices of Ethiopia's president and prime minister Thursday to present petitions demanding freedom for opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

The 35-year-old former judge was first jailed after the disputed 2005 elections, in which her party claimed victory. She was among dozens of opposition leaders sentenced to life, but later released after a pardon agreement with the government.

Birtukan was re-arrested in December and ordered to serve out her life sentence after rejecting a government demand that she make a public statement acknowledging that she asked for the pardon.

Among those participating in Thursday's demonstration was former Ethiopian president Negasso Gidada, who left office after a dispute with the ruling party in 2001. Negasso, who is a member of parliament says Birtukan should be freed because her re-arrest was illegal.

"If she was found guilty, she should have been brought in front of a court, they should have accused her and brought her to court and had her sentenced again, but they didn't do that," said Gidada. "They just picked her from the street and put her in prison. And that is not the way justice would do."

Government officials have refused to budge in the face of strong pressure to release Birtukan, who is an unmarried mother of a four-year-old daughter. Communications Minister Bereket Simon told reporters last week the government has no intention of re-opening the case on humanitarian grounds.

"No. Not at all," said Simon. "It's a judicially resolved case and the government has no mandate to intervene in implementing the decision."

A spokesman for the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, Hailu Araya, says opposition leaders plan to make Birtukan's case a main issue in next year's national elections. He calls her imprisonment an affront to the rule of law.

"There must be a way out. Just because government officials say there is no way out doesn't mean there is no way out," said Hailu. "We have to, through persistence, through pressure, we want the rule of law to be respected. If the rule of law is respected, there is a way of having her released."

Unity for Democracy and Justice party officials say the permit allowing 250 people to march Thursday was the first of its kind granted by the government since the violent post-2005 election protests that led to Birtukan's arrest. Those protests claimed the lives of nearly 200 opposition supporters killed in clashes with government forces.

Among those joining this latest demonstration was Birtukan's 72-year-old mother, Almaz Gebregziabhere, who has been one of the few visitors allowed to see her daughter in prison.

Birtukan served seven years on the federal bench, one of Ethiopia's youngest judges, before resigning in 2000 to run for parliament. She said at the time she was resigning her judgeship because of government interference in the judiciary.