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Candlelight Vigil Held for Jailed Ethiopia Opposition Leader

Hundreds of Birtukan Mideksa's supporters jam her Unity for Democracy and Justice Party headquarters, wearing yellow T-shirts bearing her image, holding candles, demanding her freedom

One of Ethiopia's main opposition parties has held a candlelight vigil to mark the first anniversary of the day their leader was imprisoned for life. But the observance was marred by a split that has broken the party in two, in the year since its leader was jailed.

Hundreds of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa's supporters jammed her Unity for Democracy and Justice Party headquarters Tuesday, wearing yellow T-shirts bearing her image, holding candles and demanding her freedom. Senior UDJ officials wore black gags to symbolize the silencing of one of Ethiopia's most powerful opposition voices.

Party spokesman Siye Abraha called on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to show mercy toward the charismatic 35-year-old single mother and former judge.

"Let them give her a chance to hug her daughter, to bring up her daughter. Let them give her a chance to support her old mother," said Siye. "She's a young lady... She is much younger than any of us... We have lived our lives. It is the turn of the generation of Birtukan to make their wishes happen. So Meles, had a chance to make his wishes happen. Be it good or bad, when he was her age. Let him not deny her that chance."

In the narrow lane outside UDJ headquarters, a few dozen members of a rump faction held their own candlelight ceremony. The faction leader, 79-year-old chain-smoking professor Mesfin Woldemariam was with Birtukan when she was taken into custody last December, and was injured trying to prevent her from being taken away.

Mesfin and his followers were later expelled in an intra-party squabble. He called Birtukan's imprisonment "heartless."

"I never believed Birtukan would stay in prison for a year. I didn't think they would have the heart to do that for a whole year, but... we should keep on praying to God the almighty so he would open up the hearts of those in power," he said.

Birtukan was among more than 100 opposition politicians arrested in connection with the demonstrations that followed the disputed 2005 elections. Nearly 200 people were killed when police shot at the demonstrators. Most of those arrested were sentenced to life in prison, but later pardoned.

Birtukan was re-arrested and ordered to complete her life term after refusing to retract a statement that she had not asked for the pardon.

At a news conference this month, Prime Minister Meles categorically ruled out Birtukan's release.

"There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That's a dead issue," he said.

Mr. Meles said the opposition leader had been warned if she did not take back her words, her pardon would be revoked.

"We tried to indicate to her that this is a very dangerous miscalculation, because we indicated to her if she went into prison now, she was not going out of it. She was left under no illusion that if she went in, she would be in for the long haul. We assured her of this fact many times before she was thrown back in jail. She refused, So this has everything to do with elementary notions of rule of law," he said.

Birtukan's supporters Tuesday lamented the split within the UDJ, which they say is damaging the party's image ahead of next May' national elections.

Leaders say the dispute is over whether the multi-ethnic UDJ should have joined forces with ethnicity-based parties in an opposition coalition known as the Forum.

Both UDJ factions, as well as the Forum, say freedom for Birtukan and other political prisoners will be a key campaign issue.