Ethiopians rally in rare protest
By Barry Malone | April 16, 2009


Almaz Gebreegziabher, mother to the leader of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ), Birtukan Mideksa participates in a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
Supporters of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) hold portraits of Birtukan Mideksa and placards during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
A UDJ supporter chants slogans for release of Birtukan and other political prisoners REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
A supporter of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) holds a portrait of Birtukan Mideksa during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009 REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
A UDJ supporter chants slogans for release of Birtukan and other political prisoners REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
The shadow of a supporter of Ethiopia's Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) is seen through an Ethiopian flag during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Irada Humbatova
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopians marched on Thursday to demand the release of a jailed opposition leader in the first political protests since a disputed 2005 election ended in street violence that killed 199 people.

Birtukan Mideksa, the 34-year-old leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ), was first jailed with other opposition leaders after the 2005 poll.

She was pardoned in 2007 but then re-arrested in 2008.

The former judge has been in solitary confinement since December and went on hunger strike for 13 days in January.

"We are marching today to tell the government that the imprisonment of our leader is illegal," said Debebe Eshetu, a senior UDJ official who was also jailed in 2005.

"She has been put in jail to weaken our party and to warn politicians who are outside the same thing may happen to us."

Birtukan is seen by regional analysts as the country's foremost opposition politician and critics of the government say she has been jailed because of the threat she could pose at 2010's parliamentary elections.

Experts expect Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government to win that poll since the opposition was weakened by the imprisonment of many its top figures in 2005.

Ethiopian opposition parties routinely accuse the government of harassment and say their candidates were intimidated when Ethiopians went to the polls last April for local elections.

The Meles government denies it.

Former Ethiopian President, Negaso Gidada, who is now an independent member of parliament, took part in Thursday's march.

He told Reuters there was no democracy in Ethiopia.

"I am convinced that our democratic rights and human rights are being abused," he said as the demonstrators marched on the prime minister's office and the palace of President Girma Woldegiorgis.

Guards barred them from entering the palace, but they were allowed to deliver a protest letter.

The demonstrators were given a letter in return that said Birtukan had broken the law and so could not be released.

The protest, which was approved by the authorities, was limited to 250 participants who all had to wear a government-issued identity badge.

Security was low-key with only a small number of plainclothes police mingling with the crowd and almost no uniformed officers present.

Protesters waved placards, played music and shouted slogans but drew little visible support from passers-by.

"The government have killed people who protest so I would not shout like this," one onlooker who declined to be named told Reuters.

"These people are very brave."

Ethiopians rally in rare protest: BBC

ADDIS ABABA - The main opposition parties in Ethiopia have held a march in Addis Ababa to call for the release of their imprisoned leader, Birtukan Medeksa.

The demonstrators handed in a petition to the authorities about Ms Birtukan.

She is serving a life sentence, after officials revoked a pardon which had previously seen her set free.

Ethiopia has very little tradition of public protest, the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Addis Ababa says, and passers-by stopped and stared in amazement.

Almaz GebreEgziabher, Ms Birtukan's mother, hopes the demonstration may help her daughter be released in time for the Ethiopian Easter this weekend.

"I am happy. I saw her last Saturday, and she is quite well. But I am praying that, with the help of God, she might be released tomorrow or the day after so that she can spend Easter with me and her daughter," she said.

Ms Birtukan's five-year-old daughter and mother are the only people who are being allowed to visit her in jail.

She was among more than 100 people jailed for political offences after Ethiopia's election in 2005, most of whom have since been pardoned.

At the time of her re-arrest her colleague Berhanu Nega, who was also pardoned and now lives in exile, told the BBC it showed the government "was hell-bent on staying in power".

Ms Birtukan is a former judge and was one of the younger and more charismatic leaders of the coalition which did well against the ruling party in the 2005 elections.

Our correspondent says that while in jail facing charges of treason, she became even more of a heroine, attracting widespread sympathy as a single mother separated from her baby daughter.

Mistakes

After the opposition leaders were pardoned and released last year, she emerged as the leader of a new coalition, the Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), painstakingly stitched together from various opposition groupings to contest elections in 2010.

The government news agency, quoting the ministry of justice, said her pardon had been revoked because she had denied requesting her pardon.

Ms Birtukan's problems started when she spoke to journalists abroad about the way the opposition leaders were released, our correspondent says.

She talked about negotiations which had taken place between the opposition and government, with the help of a panel of elders, before their pardon was granted.

The government prefers to lay emphasis on a document signed by the prisoners, regretting any mistakes they had committed and asking for pardon.

This implies that their release was part of a normal judicial process, rather than in any way part of a negotiated political deal


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