Ethiopia's best-known political prisoner, opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, is said to be in poor physical and mental health in a jail outside Addis Ababa where she is serving a life sentence. But as Prison authorities have denied visitation requests from friends and colleagues seeking to check on her condition.
A tense confrontation developed outside Kaliti prison Saturday between the facility's director Abebe Zemichael and a man who was both his former commander and his former prisoner.
Several top officials of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice Party had gone to the prison demanding to see their jailed leader Birtukan Mideksa. Among them, Siye Abraha, a well-known political and military figure who is also a former Kaliti inmate.
Siye says he and prison director Abebe argued over visitation rules.
"The chief of the prison showed up and said it is only blood relatives who are allowed to visit her, we challenged him, as we are ex-prisoners we know family and friends visit relatives in prison," said Siye.
Siye and the prison chief have a long history. Twenty years ago, Siye was military commander of the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front. Abebe was a TPLF guerrilla fighter. After the TPLF seized power in 1991, Siye became Ethiopia's defense minister in the government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
But the TPLF split in a bitter 2001 dispute. Siye was on the losing side. After being ousted, he was charged with corruption and imprisoned for six years.
He is now free and campaigning for a seat in parliament.
Siye says UDJ officials went to Kaliti to check reports Birtukan's physical and mental health have deteriorated during her 15 months behind bars.
"Since the government has blocked any information about Birtukan we do not know what precipitated this problem about her health, so we are asking the government to give her access to an independent medical inquiry," he added.
Birtukan was among dozens of opposition leaders sentenced to life in prison for their part in violent protests against what they said was vote-rigging by the ruling party in the 2005 parliamentary election. All were subsequently pardoned. But Birtukan was returned to jail and ordered to serve out her term after she refused to apologize for publicly stating she had not asked for the pardon.
Amnesty International describes her as a prisoner of conscience, the U.N. Human Rights Council lists her as a victim of arbitrary detention.
The U.S. State Department calls her a political prisoner, and describes as 'credible' reports her mental health is deteriorating.
The 35-year-old single mother and former judge was held in solitary confinement for five months after being re-arrested. Since then, her mother and five-year-old daughter have been the only ones allowed to see her.
In an interview Friday, Almaz Gebregziabher, 74, said her daughter seems mentally sound, though they are not able to talk freely during their twice weekly visits. Speaking through an interpreter, she said Birtukan's physical health is the greater worry.
"Saturday Birtukan complained that she was sick, and on Sunday she said 'would you please deliver this message to authorities', that she was severely sick," she said. "As soon as Birtukan said she was sick, she was almost in tears, and immediately the female guard that was listening to their conversation interfered and told her to leave the premises."
Officials flatly deny Birtukan is either physically or mentally ill. At a recent news conference, Prime Minister Meles suggested reports about Birtukan's condition are politically motivated.
"She may have added a few kilos. That may be for lack of exercise," said Prime Minister Meles. "Other than that, I understand she is in perfect health. Where are they getting it, these reports? The usual suspects."
He rejected a reporter's suggestion that outside doctors, diplomats or journalists be allowed to see Birtukan to verify her condition.
"Birtukan is an ordinary prisoner of law. She will be treated like an ordinary prisoner of law. And we will keep her in prison like every other prisoner. No more rights, no less rights," added Prime Minister Meles.
Birtukan supporter Siye Abraha counters that if Birtukan is treated like any other prisoner, she should be allowed to see friends and relatives.
Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal this week expressed surprise the issue of Birtukan's health is being raised. He said if she is sick, she can go to the prison infirmary. If her problems are more serious, she would be referred to a hospital, like every other prisoner.
Shimelis said the timing of the issue suggests it might have less to do with Birtukan's health and more to do with the next election, which is less than two months away.